Pinewood Derby Track Timer Part 3

Ready for the race to start

So I have the hardware built, and I need the code. I slightly bypassed the default Arduino code and set the ADC core clock to be 1MHz instead of 128kHz. The datasheet warns that this results in some loss of precision, but I only want 8 bits from the ADC anyway, so 1MHz is still perfectly adequate. (More details on this below.) I didn’t use any other tricks or optimizations in the programming, because this project is so simple that the chip will spend most of its time cycling through the main loop but not really doing anything. (Well, with the ‘blocking’ calls to analogRead(), most of the time will be waiting for these results.) This chip is really vastly overkill on such a simple job, but since I can buy them on a board with the peripherals for dirt cheap, I didn’t even really consider doing anything else. For a one-off there’s no point.

Yes, it’s a bit ugly. But it works…

I tried to provide plenty of comments in the code to show just what is going on everywhere, but some of the thinking and calculations behind it aren’t shown there. I’ll try to make it clear by expanding on that here.

Since I didn’t know how bright the room would be when the race is run, I have the code always looking at the average light level to get a baseline. This starts up as soon as the chip is powered on and boots, so it should be fine. With the ADC clock running at 1MHz, there’s a theoretical max of over 76k (1,000,000Hz \over 13) analog readings per second. This will be slightly lower because of the time spent in the rest of the code, but overall it shouldn’t be too far from it. With it reading 4 different inputs, this puts each input at over 10,000 inputs per second, or more than 100 every hundredth of a second, which is our clock resolution time. It might be WAY over 100 per hundredth of a second – I didn’t actually time it – but it doesn’t matter for this, it’s way more than we actually need. Assuming a stable input, in less than 1/10th of a second, the average register, starting from zero, will settle down to the average of the input of that sensor. As long as the fresh input is at least 20 ADC steps above the average, it will trigger the pattern to add a 1 into the low position, else it will put a zero in there. Every time through the bits are shifted left and a new bit added. Only after getting 8 consecutive successes will it finally stop the clock. With as many runs through as it gets, this is still far less than the smallest resolution of the clock. The pattern is used to keep noise from having much chance of triggering the system and making it malfunction.

In general, this is basically just a debounce routine. If you’re not familiar with the idea, basically the real world is terribly noisy, and all kinds of spurious things get noticed by the microcontroller, even though they’re too quick to be noticed by a human. These things will confuse code and cause it to misoperate if they aren’t controlled for. We don’t want the timer to stop every time a flicker of a shadow hits the sensor if it’s too small for it to be a car. (Or too far away – like a person walking by.) We also don’t want random radio waves to be able to trigger our timer to think that there was a car there. These kinds of interference tend to even out, so as long as we look at the big picture and get rid of the noise, then we’re good. It’s basically an average. We have to weigh the consequences of being better at getting rid of the noise vs. being quicker to respond when something real is there that we need to catch. They are absolutely opposite of each other, so getting the right balance is important. (But in most things there is some wiggle room – we don’t need the exact right time down to the microsecond, at least usually.)

There are many different ideas out there about how to debounce an input. I’ll show here a few decent examples, as well as my personally preferred model. (At least it is for now – I actually found it in looking up links for this article, and then spent some time admiring the simplicity and beauty of it.)

  • With an explanation here.
  • Jack Ganssle’s page with a few methods. (He’s a well-respected embedded engineer.)
  • A large curated collection of them here. Unfortunately, they are not really explained or hardly commented on, though.
  • And my favorite: Kenneth Kuhn’s integrator method. In the comments he claims that it’s a half-second integration time, but then in the code the constant DEBOUNCE_TIME seems to show different at 0.3 seconds.

Here’s the code that I used on the timer:
(It can all be found on GitHub, along with the Fritzing file used for the schematic on page 2.)

#include <Arduino.h>
#include "TM1637Display.h"
#include "LedControl.h"

// Module connection pins (Digital Pins)
// These pins are for the 7 segment LED clocks.
// They use the TM1637 chip
#define CLK 2
#define DIO 3

// The number of adc channels to check.
// One channel per lane.
#define MAX_ADC 4

// This is the pin that has the starter switch connected to it.
#define START_PIN 13

// The amount of time (in milliseconds) between tests
#define TEST_DELAY   50

 * The displays are all just consecutive pins. This is all
 * just arbitrary. This was the simplest way in my case.
TM1637Display display0(CLK, DIO);
TM1637Display display1(CLK+2, DIO+2);
TM1637Display display2(CLK+4, DIO+4);
TM1637Display display3(CLK+6, DIO+6);

 Now we need a LedControl to work with.
 ***** These pin numbers are set up to work with the 5
 *        pin board with the MAX7219 chip on it. *****
 pin 12 is connected to the DataIn 
 pin 11 is connected to the CLK 
 pin 10 is connected to LOAD 
 ***** The last entry (4) is for how many displays there are. *****
LedControl lc=LedControl(12,11,10,4);

/* we always wait a bit between updates of the display */
unsigned long matrixdelaytime=500;

void setup() {

  // Set the brightness of each display to be at its
  // brightest. (0x0f) I see no reason to have any of
  // them be anything other than full bright.
  /* This sets various things to initialize display.
   * The arguments, in order:
   * 0 = the actual number to display. 0 is where a race
   *     should start, of course.
   * 0xff = bitmask used to turn on all the dots. On
   *     the display I'm using, this only has the effect
   *     of turning on the colon between the 2nd and 3rd digit.
   * true = show leading zeroes
   * 4 = the number of digits to set. This is the max for the
   *     the display I'm using.
  // These are probably not necessary, but can't hurt.
  // I'm pretty sure that calling analogRead()
  // would have taken care of it.
  pinMode(A0, INPUT);
  pinMode(A1, INPUT);
  pinMode(A2, INPUT);
  pinMode(A3, INPUT);
  // Turn on the pullup resistors on the pins.
  digitalWrite(A0, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(A1, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(A2, HIGH);
  digitalWrite(A3, HIGH);
    // set up the ADC
     * Set up the prescaler to be 16. On a 16MHz clock, this has the
     * ADC core running at 1MHz. The datasheet says that speeds up
     * to 1MHz have little degredation on the ADC accuracy. Since
     * we're only using 8 bits instead of the entire 10 bits of
     * possible accuracy, this is perfectly acceptable accuracy.
  ADCSRA &= ~((1<<ADPS0)|(ADPS1));  // remove bits set by Arduino library
  ADCSRA |= (1 << ADPS2); // set our own prescaler to 16
  // Turn off the digital buffers to increase analog precision

  //we have to init all devices in a loop
  for(int address=0;address<4;address++) {
    /*The MAX72XX is in power-saving mode on startup*/
    /* Set the brightness to a medium values 
     * These are very bright and can be overwhelming
     * at full brightness.
    // and clear the display

// The bit patterns needed to display a '1' on the matrix.
uint8_t first [8] = {
// The bit patterns needed to display a '2' on the matrix.
uint8_t second [8] = {
// The bit patterns needed to display a '3' on the matrix.
uint8_t third [8] = {
// The bit patterns needed to display a '4' on the matrix.
uint8_t fourth [8] = {

// Combine them all into an array to make it easy to use.
uint8_t * places [4] = {first, second, third, fourth};
// This will keep track of the millis() when the race starts.
// When it's still 0 then the race is allowed to start.
// Afterwards it will refuse to start until reset.
unsigned volatile long starttime = 0;
// Set up the arrays to keep track of the light levels
// for each lane. Set to all zeroes to start.
unsigned int filtered[MAX_ADC]={0};
unsigned int difference[MAX_ADC]={0};
uint8_t pattern[MAX_ADC]={0};

 *  This keeps track of every clock individually. Whenever this
 *  equals true, the clock will be running. This way as soon as
 *  a car crosses the finish line its clock can be individually
 *  stopped while the others continue to run.
static bool run0 = false;
static bool run1 = false;
static bool run2 = false;
static bool run3 = false;

 * Helper function to make it easier to show the different 
 * numbers on the matrix displays. This keeps some of the 
 * housekeeping data/code in a single place to reduce errors 
 * and my effort.
void show(uint8_t address, uint8_t place){
  for(uint8_t i=0;i<8;i++){
    lc.setRow(address, i, places[place][i]);
 * This will display on the matrix the place number.
 * It also keeps track of how many have already finished.
void finish(uint8_t which_one){
  static uint8_t num_finishers = 0;
  // This should never happen, but just in case, don't let
  // The number of finishers go above 4. (Starts at 0)
void loop() {
   * Since the clock displays that I have only show 4 digits,
   * with the colon between position 2 and 3, hundredths is
   * the best resolution that can be shown. It is easiest to
   * calculate the time once per loop and just keep track of
   * it throughout. This should reduce calculations as well
   * as reducing the chance of human error in the code.
  unsigned long timenowhundredths=millis()/10-starttime;
  unsigned long lasttime;

/* If the start switch pin is low (triggered) then check
 * to see if the start time has already been set to something.
 * If it has then this is a duplicate start signal. In order
 * to avoid confusion, don't allow this. The clocks are already running
 * so if the intention is really to restart the race, first the
 * reset button must be pushed to zero everything out and start
 * fresh.
      // timenowhundredths will never be zero when the button is pushed,
      // since it starts counting as soon as the arduino is reset.
      // Turn on all the clocks to start running.

  // cycle through all 4 light sensors on every trip through the loop
  for(uint8_t i=0;i<4;i++){
    uint16_t reading = analogRead(i);
     * The average is only the high byte of the int. In effect this
     * will end up being a low-pass filter to get rid of the noise
     * and work better.
    uint8_t average = filtered[i]>>8;
    // only keep the high 8 bits of the reading.
    reading = reading >> 2;
     * Since the average comes from the high byte of the int, but
     * in the math here is subtracted from the low byte and then 
     * the current reading added in, this will take a while to
     * react to changes.
    filtered[i] -= average;
    filtered[i] += reading;
     * TODO: I had an idea to keep track of the average noise
     * level with this difference reading. That way I'd have more
     * confidence that when a car passed over the sensor it was
     * truly a real difference and not just more noise. This didn't
     * end up being needed, but just in case I need to add it back
     * in sometime, I'm leaving it here.
    //int8_t diff = reading-average;
    //diff = abs(diff);
    //difference[i] -= difference[i]>>8;
    //difference[i] += diff;
    uint8_t now;
     * This simplistic assumption that if there's a step change of 20,
     * which was just detemined experimentally and really doesn't mean
     * anything other than it made the system work well. This step change
     * showed that the shadow of the car had gone overhead and triggers
     * the end for that lane's timer.
    } else {

     * This is a simple bit of code that requires the change to stay the
     * same for 8 consecutive times before it will trigger the actual end
     * of the timer. This keeps the timer going if there's only a momentary
     * shadow that quickly goes away.
      switch (i) {
        case 0:
          // stop the time on the clock
          // set the place number
        case 1:
        case 2:
        case 3:
  * This first checks to see if the clocks are current.
  * If they are then it does nothing. If there is a new
  * time to display then it will update each of the ones
  * that are still supposed to be running. The rest are
  * simply skipped. I'm pretty sure that I could have
  * gotten away with using 3 less pins by tying all of
  * the DIO pins from the different displays together
  * and then just pulsing the CLK pins of those clocks
  * that were still running when I wanted to update data.
  * I still had plenty of free pins, though, and the
  * library is written to be used like this, so this
  * was the easiest way to get this project done.
  if (timenowhundredths>lasttime){
    // Here is where it checks if the display is still
    // supposed to be running.
    if (run0){
      display0.showNumberDecEx(timenowhundredths, 0xff);
    if (run1){
      display1.showNumberDecEx(timenowhundredths, 0xff);
    if (run2){
      display2.showNumberDecEx(timenowhundredths, 0xff);
    if (run3){
      display3.showNumberDecEx(timenowhundredths, 0xff);


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