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Toyota teaches tech at the track with the Scion FR-S

At a recent Toyota Onramp event at Laguna Seca, we hit the racetrack in the 2014 Scion FR-S sports coupe to learn about its latest car brain, the CAN-Gateway ECU.

I hit the track at the Laguna Seca to experience Toyota's latest ECU tech. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The man who's responsible for one of the most exciting sport compact cars of this generation is a pretty reserved guy. At least, that's the impression that I got when I sat down to speak with Tetsuya Tada, chief engineer of the Toyota 86, at a Toyota Onramp event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

I was there to learn about Toyota's new ECU technology, how it would change the way we interact with our cars, and Toyota's reaching out to developers in Silicon Valley to build on that technology. To find myself chatting about the coupe's old-school appeal and driver-centric performance with the Hachi-Roku's chief engineer himself was a pleasant surprise.

Like its creator, the Scion FR-S (as the 86 is known in the States) is pretty reserved for a purpose-built sports car. It also seems pretty low-tech for a car that's aimed at younger tech-savvy drivers. Like the smartphones in those drivers' pockets, however, the FR-S is eager to communicate thanks to its high-tech CAN-Gateway ECU.

The CAN-Gateway ECU is baked into the Scion's brain, but this datalogger hardware allows the driving data to be exported to the Gran Turismo racing sim. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

An ECU is the brain that controls and monitors nearly every aspect of a vehicle's operations. From the engine's ignition timing to stability control to the emissions system and more, all of the data relevant to vehicle performance flows through the ECU. Toyota's CAN-Gateway ECU is able to capture that data and communicate it to other devices, either via USB or over Bluetooth.

The Toyota 86/Scion FR-S' CAN-Gateway ECU's ability to communicate with other devices is already being utilized in the Gran Turismo racing sim franchise for the Sony PlayStation 3 with its GPS Visualizer feature. The game can accept the USB data from a datalogger that plugs into the CAN-Gateway ECU and stores the raw speed, steering angle, throttle and brake pressure, gear selection, and a wide range of other data to a USB drive.

The datalogger also captures GPS data, which is imported with the rest of the info into Gran Turismo 6 and used to recreate your lap-by-lap performance on a selection of racetracks in game. You can then relive the trackday digitally or race against themselves in the game.

Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is one of my favorite courses and the Scion FR-S one of my favorite cars, so I was more than eager to don my helmet and head out for a few laps of data collection.

Drivers took laps around the track in the Scion FR-S to log GPS and CAN-Gateway ECU data. Toyota

With my USB key full of logged data, I headed over to a bank of PS3s and plugged in. Polyphony Digital's representative told me that data collection for Laguna Seca was still in beta and required a few in-game tweaks to play properly. Even then, some of the laps still turned out a bit wonky where errors in the logged GPS data caused the vehicle to move unrealistically. I was assured me that the kinks would be worked out before the CAN-Gateway's datalogger becomes available to drivers in the US.

Toyota and Polyphony Digital previously demonstrated the GPS Visualizer at the Willow Springs International Raceway last year with uncanny accuracy.

The data is then imported into the Gran Turismo racing sim and used to reconstruct the logged laps. This lap was captured at Fuji Speedway in Japan. Polyphony Digital

The vast majority of drivers aren't racers or don't live near the handful of Japanese and American racetracks supported by GT6's GPS Visualizer, so Toyota is turning to developers to seek new ways to tap into the CAN-Gateway ECU technology during your daily drive on public roads. The automaker is looking to Silicon Valley to make commuting more fun, more efficient, and safer.

At a future Onramp event at the Alameda, Calif. Naval Base during the weekend of September 27-28, Toyota will be inviting developers to a 24-hour codefest where apps will be created to take advantage of the CAN-Gateway ECU technology with prizes being awarded to the top apps.

According to the automaker, the devs will be working with a new and experimental version of the Gateway will be able to "send data real time over Bluetooth to iOS and Android devices." So by the end of the codefest we may see a hypermiling app that gives real-time feedback on improving your fuel economy, a driver safety app that teaches to drive more defensively, or a music app that automatically adjusts your playlist to your driving style matching BPM with your average RPM.

The data logger plugs into the OBD-II port and features Bluetooth, USB, GPS, and a button to trigger lap logging. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The codefest participants will be working with the current Scion FR-S, as it's the only vehicle in Toyota's lineup that currently supports the technology. Toyota's representatives were hesitant to confirm that we'd be seeing this technology in other vehicles, but I'd frankly be surprised if that weren't the case.