Wash my car for free?
August 29, 2007 1:50 AM   Subscribe

Today I washed my car at one of those touch less car washes that you just drop money into and drive in. This particular one was a Laserwash There was a maintenance man in one of the bays with a company truck. I watched him point a remote control at the exit of the wash and initiate a car wash two different times for testing purposes, I assume. My question is, if I had the code and it was an IR remote is it possible to program a universal remote to send that code and activate the carwash in the same manner? Searching Google for Laserwash codes didn't help me much.
posted by tradeer33 to Technology (16 answers total)
A normal universal IR remote would not have the proper code sequences programmed in. Your typical $20 universal remote has a few hundred brands of TVs etc pre-programmed in. That short 4 number code only access a set of IR codes stored in the ROM of the device.

Any programmable one would be capable of being programmed to produce the correct codes. A learning remote probably would be able to learn the commands if you had the original remote. But then using one would be stealing...
posted by jeblis at 2:41 AM on August 29, 2007

If I was setting the system up a special remote wouldn't be enough (it would just be for convenience) you'd need to put the carwash into a service mode either with a key on the controller or possibly an inaccessible to the public switch.
posted by Mitheral at 3:40 AM on August 29, 2007

My experience with car washes (but not the laser wash line) is that even the high-tech ones are low-tech. So, a maintenance override would probably be jumpered in with the signal from the coinbox to work in regular, not a special maintenance mode - the (old-school) thinking is, you want to test the thing in as close to the operating mode as possible, right?

As to the feasibility of stealing the codes or using a universal remote, there's probably a code he had to manually punch in.
posted by notsnot at 4:13 AM on August 29, 2007

Aw, c'mon, people. I think it's a theoretically interesting question—and if we were in fact to expose here how to program a remote to use carwashes for free (unlikely, it seems), it would ultimately get around the Internet and they'd be forced to change their maintenance standards...and who's to say that being forced to improve their security would be a bad thing? Perhaps it would be an additional cost that might burden the industry, if carwash owners weren't people of great means...but we can't assume they are or aren't well-off, overall, and it may be the case that they're making enough money that the burden of upgrading their equipment would be easily bearable.

In any case, if they're all using these remotes, someone was bound to notice at some point. People are innately drawn to hack or otherwise be curious about and try to figure out things like this, I think.
posted by limeonaire at 5:18 AM on August 29, 2007

(Oh, and consider this: The carwash industry consists of these companies (and some individual owners) who set up concrete shacks, essentially, where you pay $5 for $1 worth of water and soap and the electricity to run their machine once through. That's an estimate, cost-wise, but I bet it's not far off.)
posted by limeonaire at 5:20 AM on August 29, 2007

Mod note: a few comments removed - if you truly think this is a "help me steal car washes" question, you can take it to metatalk
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:04 AM on August 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

The answer to your question is yes, it is possible.
posted by poppo at 6:18 AM on August 29, 2007

Most likely a standard universal remote wouldn't do it.

If you're thinking about this as a hobby, consider this: if I were writing the software to run it, I'd sure as heck put in auditing code so that the owners could track how many paid washes and total cycles were going on. This would tell me if my maintenance person was, say, collecting the money himself and letting people through on a test wash.

Stealing washes would certainly show up and are pretty easy to trap, once identified.
posted by plinth at 6:24 AM on August 29, 2007

If I were going to design a car-wash system I wouldn't go through the time and effort of creating a perfectly hack-free system that required super-special transmitters and IR diodes to work.

I'd create something that was just good enough that most people wouldn't figure it out and move on to the next project.

I bet you could use a programmable remote control where you have to point it at another control and then press the button that you want to clone. The kind that has all of the code pre-programmed (probably) wouldn't work.

Also, I bet there's a key or some sort of physical lock that you'd have to engage / disengage before the remote control option on the car wash even works.
posted by bshort at 6:34 AM on August 29, 2007

I think to get the remote to work in that mode there is a toggle inside the operator's box that has to be manually switched on. The only way you would be able to use your hack remote would be if the service tech left the toggle switch in that position which is not likely because in the service mode the unit would not accept money.
posted by bkeene12 at 6:51 AM on August 29, 2007

The ones around here all use 5 digit codes issued by the system and are valid for a one time use within a certain span of time. They also can have 5 digit codes that will always work. These are used by the owners or issued to the cops for instance. Try the local zip code. It will often work.
posted by mrleec at 8:18 AM on August 29, 2007

My money would be with bkeene on this. Vending machines that accept payment invariably have a service mode that is protected from fraudulent use by some sort of lock. During ordinary use the ability to operate the car wash with a remote would serve no purpose and introduce extra security risks so we can be pretty sure that it is for service mode use only. To get a free wash you would therefore need to know not just the "start" command but also how to get into service mode. My guess is that there will either be a physical key that needs turning or a PIN that needs entering. It is possible that the PIN might be entered from a pad on the remote prior to the start command.
posted by rongorongo at 8:32 AM on August 29, 2007

(Oh, and consider this: The carwash industry consists of these companies (and some individual owners) who set up concrete shacks, essentially, where you pay $5 for $1 worth of water and soap and the electricity to run their machine once through. That's an estimate, cost-wise, but I bet it's not far off.)

In the US, they also must pay for sludge removal/treatment, wastewater processing, and/or a permit to dump treated water in the sewer system.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:58 AM on August 29, 2007

I used to use a Palm program called OmniRemote. It could send (and learn) complex macro commands, and it would work on any Palm device.

Old Palms are now amazingly cheap at places like Ebay, and the older ones have stronger IR LEDS anyway.

The trick is that you'd have to capture the commands from the original once. Or get a code file from someone else who already did the same.
posted by SlyBevel at 11:05 AM on August 29, 2007

Response by poster: I just saw the guy use a remote, im more than happy to pay to wash my car, but it made me curious. Thats why I asked the question.
posted by tradeer33 at 6:32 PM on August 29, 2007

Well, there are probably cameras in there, so wash at your own risk. But yes, if it's infrared, you should be able to capture and replay the code. I find it an interesting intellectual exercise.

Assuming the servicedude isn't going to just hand you his clicker so you can program your own learning remote, you'd have to sniff the code somehow. Luckily, infrared transmissions are modulated (usually 38kHz) so they're easy to distinguish from noise. Receivers which demodulate this and give you a baseband code train are very cheap, under $4 at radio shack. The output should be within the audio passband, so any cheap tape deck should give you ample recording time. Concealing the receiver, or optically extending its useful range, is an exercise left to the reader. ;)

Review the tape, listening for the sputter sound. Record that into the computer, then use Audacity to stretch it out and dice a synthesized 38kHz wave into bits that line up with the sputter. Then play back the output through an audiophile (96kHz) interface using an IR LED as the speaker. That should give you a nice clean signal, which you could use directly, or use to train a learning remote.

To echo what others have said: There's probably a service-mode switch that enables the receiver. But there's a fair chance that the switch is left on all the time because the servicedude thinks it's secure, or that there's simply no switch.

There's plenty of programming and computer interfacing info out there, for the One-For-All series of remote controls. If you have the actual numeric "code", turning it into a pulsetrain manually isn't impossible, but it's definitely easier to just program a remote to do the gruntwork.
posted by Myself at 9:11 PM on August 29, 2007

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