When I was a kid, my two sets of grandparents each had what I considered some high-tech 1970s gadgetry in their cars. One had a compass stuck to the windshield, a little floating ball that swiveled like BB-8 to show us the direction in which we traveled. The other had a talking Chrysler that would voice warnings such as “The door…is ajar!” or “Your directional signal is…still on!”
These days, my parents are now grandparents and they drive a modern-day Toyota Prius that’s got more buttons than a 747—but it’s still a pretty low-tech car in comparison with many of the ones we review here at PCMag. That’s because mobile technology and vehicles are finally coalescing.
Look at some of the stats from Juniper research. The market for heads-up displays (HUDs, a way to get info right on your windshield, augmented reality-style), for instance, will soon be huge, with one in eight new vehicles having a HUD by 2021. And the new connected in-vehicle infotainment systems that put your iPhone or Android smartphone apps in your car will be a $600 million business by 2020.
For those of us with older cars, we’re stuck with incredible phones while driving vehicles that won’t talk to them, charge them, or display what we want to see from them. And that’s just the start. Modern high-tech cars should be laden with tech safety features, methods of connecting to the outside world, full diagnostics, and ways to keep passengers entertained.
Thankfully, there is a massive aftermarket of gadgets and add-ons that work with just about any existing vehicle on the road today. Here’s our deep dive into the tech you can add to your old jalopy to make it feel a bit more Tesla-esque.
A Smarter Car
The smartphone is the first screen most people will turn to—even while driving. Making that a simpler, safer proposition is big business. It’s why Apple created CarPlay and Google made Android Auto. Each is a way to connect your phone to your in-car entertainment system.
Lots of new cars are going to support CarPlay and Android Auto from the get-go, but old vehicles are not entirely out of luck. Many aftermarket systems support them, with prices curently ranging from expensive to even more expensive. The brains of such systems are the box in the dash that we used to just call “the radio” or maybe “the stereo,” but is now called the stereo head unit. It’s what you access to play music and a whole lot more—phone and text communication, GPS, you name it.
What you need to look for, typically, are double-DIN head units. A double-DIN unit goes in a 7-by-4-inch slot in the dash, which is pretty standard.
By the way, Android Auto soon won’t even require a head unit. As long as it’s got a way to talk to the audio system (Bluetooth, etc.) and can mount on the dash, you can skip the fancy hardware and just use the Android Auto app. That’s pretty nice considering how big some Android phablets can get—why have another screen?
If you’d rather avoid tearing open the dash—pro installation is recommended, and can cost from $200 to $600 for parts and labor on top of the head unit—you’ll have to buy a vehicle that supports one of the two systems. Of course, there are ways to maximize the tech in (or on) the dash without replacing the head unit. Not all of them have to do with audio/entertainment, but they do make for a “smarter” vehicle experience.
The baseline for Pioneer’s Double-DIN head units, this AVH-4100NEX model supports both AirPlay and Android Auto via a 7-inch WVGA touch screen. It naturally has Bluetooth integration to handle phone calls and streaming audio. It also supports Siri Eyes Free, so you can just tap the dash screen to activate Siri and get your iPhone doing all sorts of things. There is separate support for services like Pandora, SiriusXM, and others. The face of the unit detaches so you can take it with you to deter theft.
Kenwood eXcelon DDX6903S
On the slightly less expensive side is this CarPlay-only head unit from Kenwood. This one features a 6.2-inch screen, but also comes ready for use with other phones via Bluetooth, and is SiriusXM ready.
Navdy is the first portable head-up display (HUD). It sits atop the dash and plugs into the OBD-II port. It projects info such as speed, engine rpm, and compass direction on a transparent screen in front you, and uses built-in GPS and Google Maps to show the surrounding area, display speed limits and street names, and route you to your destination. It also connects to your Android or iOS smartphone via Bluetooth to display data including calls, texts, music, and all manner of social media and alerts. Access to this info is largely controlled using a thumbwheel that attaches to your steering wheel and is supplemented by gesture control that’s activated by waving your hand in front of the device.
Prices vary; service plans start at $69.99 per year
It’s not hard to get a remote car starter installed on vehicles of any make, model, or year, but few are as smart as Viper’s SmartStart. The system basically gives you control over your car from afar, using your smartphone or smartwatch. Beyond just being able to start the car remotely with an app, it’ll locate where it is (handy in a parking lot, if it’s stolen, or your teen is on a joyride), tell you how fast the car is going when it’s out, alert you if the vehicle moves without your permission, unlock the doors, and more. There are a lot of different options, like adding GPS, so narrowing down the price on Viper’s site seems to be impossible (thus, expect it to be expensive). It will help if you create a system rundown to take to an authorized installer, which is required; you can’t install it yourself.
Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT
The Garmin DriveAssist 50LMT is a dash cam with several smart safety features found in many new luxury cars, such as forward collision and lane departure warnings. It also serves as a GPS with free map and live traffic updates. Its navigation, powered by HERE, is on point, and the inclusion of traffic helps you get where you’re going faster. Like most Garmin devices it’s easy to use, with loud and clear prompts and a simple interface. If you’re looking for a dash cam that does it all, the 50LMT is a great bet, and our Editors’ Choice.
Escort Passport Max2 Radar Detector
The Passport Max2 does everything it can to help keep you under the radar. It detects all the usual radar bands, even the laser guns sometimes used by police. And built-in Bluetooth lets the device communicate with apps, through which you can share “threats” on where to find speed traps, red light cameras, and more. Even if you don’t use your smartphone to pair it, it has GPS to share that data automatically.
Making cars smarter isn’t always necessary—you’ve probably got a smartphone, after all. The key is to get the two to communicate or, at the very least, make it easier to use the smartphone in the car. These devices will assist you and your passengers in getting the most out of handsets while in traffic.
Anker SoundSync Drive Bluetooth 4.0 Car Receiver
Let’s say there’s no Bluetooth in your car at all, and you don’t want to spring for one of those more expensive devices above. The sub-$20 SoundSync Drive is all you need. It plugs into a USB charger for power, and the aux audio jack on your radio. Pair it to your smartphone, and you’re ready to stream music or use it for hands-free calls.
GoGroove FlexSmart X5 Bluetooth FM Transmitter
Don’t have Bluetooth or an aux jack to plug into? FM Transmitters for mobile music devices have been around forever. This is the Cadillac model, with a flexible charger included for your car’s DC outlet that doubles as a mount, or you can put it on the visor and charge the battery between use. The bright screen shows you which FM channel to use on radio. You can also make or take calls, and even redial the last number.
Ion Cassette Bluetooth Adapter
There is one more Bluetooth option for those with a car stereo so ancient, so archaic, that is has a cassette player. Ion’s little adapter looks just like a cassette, and slides inside the deck like one, but pairs with your smartphone for audio playback through your car’s speakers. Eject it, and it automatically turns off. There’s even a little microphone that sticks out for hands-free calls. The adapter does need power though, so you’ll have to plug it in to the car outlet, or run it off its built-in battery rated for about 6 hours.
Motorola Roadster 2 Bluetooth Speakerphone
If none of the options for Bluetoothing through the car dash and speakers appears applicable, then you can get a speakerphone for your car to get you hands-free. Motorola’s Roadster was a favorite when we reviewed it, and it remains a good option for in-car phone conversations, especially now that’s half the price it was when launched. And, guess what? It also does FM transmission so you can listen to music on it.
Verizon Jetpack MiFi 7730L
Mobile hotspots like the Jetpack MiFi 7730L put Wi-Fi in your car (or anywhere else you go where there is cellular service). This one sports the latest modem technologies, making it the best way to connect to Verizon’s network.
It’s worth noting you can also use your smartphone for Wi-Fi, so your tablet-using passengers can get online. See How to Turn Your Phone into a Wi-Fi Hotspot.
weBoost Drive 4G-S
If you simply desire better cell signal in your car, you can use a booster. Stick a Drive 4G-S in your vehicle (with an external antenna outside) and weBoost claims you’ll get a signal improvement up to 32 times what you had without it. It works with all the major US and Canadian carriers. An optional indoor kit means the booster can go in the house with you to enhance your signal there, as well.
What’s Going On Under the Hood?
If you own a car manufactured from 1996 onward, it has an Onboard Diagnostic II (or OBD-II) port. You probably know it as the thing the guy at the garage occasionally plugs into, typically under your steering column to turn off the Check Engine lights on your dashboard that send you into a mild panic. However, the OBD-II port does much more than that. It’s the interface for all sorts of telematics information about your car.
With the right device to plug in, you can access that information for your own purposes. Very simple products like the ScanTool OBDLink SX Scan Tool ($29.95) can connect it directly to a laptop to read the general diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) stored by the vehicle (you’ll also need the OBD software). ScanTool also lets OBD-II devices with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to talk to smartphones. If you understand the codes, you’ll feel like a mechanic in no time.
However, there are plenty of new products out there taking advantage of the OBD-II port to bring you even more info, by sharing what’s happening in your car with the cloud. Just remember, you only have one OBD-II port, so choose wisely.
Hum by Verizon
$29 for equipment, $20 activation, $10 per month with two-year subscription
With Hum you get an OBD-II dongle, a Bluetooth speakerphone/controller to clip to the visor, and a USB charger for that speaker to plug into the cigarette lighter/DC connector receptacle. The price has dropped per month since we reviewed it, but only because Verizon added up-front fees and requires a two-year commitment.
Hum basically serves as a user-installable replacement for OnStar—it detects crashes, airbag deployments, etc., and with built-in Verizon cellular service, it can make calls for emergency services, and even relay info to the cops if your car is stolen. Naturally it has mobile apps to keep track of info from the OBD-II port, but it also helps you find your car in giant parking lots and offers maintenance reminders.
How does Hum differ from Verizon’s other OBD dongle, Delphi Connect? Well, that’s a whole separate service that costs either $99 for the basic version or $199.99 for the version with a 4G LTE hotspot built in; each has activation fees and a $5 monthly charge. Delphi is meant more for remotely monitoring what’s going on with the car and tracking travel history, with some nice OnStar-esque options like remotely starting the vehicle or unlocking its doors (depending on the model of the vehicle). And as we said above, a hotspot is always nice for passengers.
The Automatic Pro has one cost: the OBD-II dongle. The rest is all about it communicating with the app on your smartphone via built-in 3G connectivity to help you become a better driver. It scores your driving and your car’s health, so you know exactly where both stand at a glance. Naturally, it has all the cool options like locating your car, low-fuel warnings, and triggering an agent to call you if you have a crash/airbag deployment. It also works with a couple of smartwatches (like the Apple Watch $699.99 at Apple Store and Pebble), as well as a Web-based interface. And the app works with IFTTT so events in the car can trigger things that happen with other Web services. For instance, imagine asking your Amazon Echo where your car is. That’s just one option.
Free plus $99.95 per year (or $99.95 plus $10 a month to include in-car hotspot)
Like Verizon’s Hum and Delphi, the Zubie uses cellular service so it can send info from anywhere, plus it provides in-car Wi-Fi with a 4G LTE backhaul (provided by Verizon), and a lot of the same features. The goal, like with the Automatic Pro, is to help make better drivers—so much so that Zubie has a deal with Progressive Insurance to get customers of both companies a safe driver discount based on their Zubie data. With no separate device on the dash, Zubie still relies on your smartphone for some things, like working with Urgent.ly to get on-demand tow trucks. It also works with IFTTT and Amazon Echo (you may sense a pattern here).
Keeping Things Safe
You know how they shoot Carpool Karaoke and Comedians in Cars with Coffee, with lots of little cameras stuck around the vehicle to capture every possible angle? Similar safety-minded cockpit cameras are coming soon. But there are plenty of other safety features you can implement right now, many of which feature a lens on the world outside your vehicle.
Z-Edge Z3 Dash Cam
Dash cams are all the rage, especially overseas. There is a good reason for that: they’re incredibly handy at capturing amazing footage a driver can’t/shouldn’t get, and backing you up for safety/liability issues. The picture from the Z3 is a sharp 2,560-by-1,080 pixels at 30 frames per second, and a broad 150-degree view means it won’t miss a thing. The dash cam kicks to life when the car starts or if there is vibration in park mode. It features a looping recording feature so you don’t run out of storage (but you can put in a 32GB SD card to grab your favorite one-, three-, or five-minute clips). And it has a built-in accelerometer to capture crashes.
Having the ability to see what’s going on behind your car is not only convenient when backing into a parking space, it can also prevent damage to your vehicle and whatever happens to be in your way. The Pearl RearVision is a do-it-yourself backup camera and alert system that installs easily with no drilling or wiring required. It uses two solar-charged HD cameras to beam crystal clear video directly to your smartphone and offers visual and audible obstacle alerts. At $499.99 it’s not cheap, but it works wonderfully and can be removed and installed on any vehicle in a matter of minutes, earning our Editors’ Choice.
Yada Rearview Mirror Monitor Wireless Backup Camera System
Looking for something a little less intrusive in the backup camera department? This replacement rearview mirror doubles as the monitor for the wireless backup camera—the little 3.5-inch screen is integrated right into the reflection. It slips over top of your existing mirror so it’s easy to install, though the camera itself still has to be wired in, and the mirror/display needs external power from your car’s DC receptacle. And the mirror has buttons you can program to use with a garage door opener, if you’re afraid of covering up those on your existing rearview.
Esky LED Display Car Vehicle Reverse Backup Radar System
Cameras are one thing, but how about full-on backup collision detection? Mount the ruggedized ultrasonic Esky sensors—you’ll need to drill some holes in the rear bumper—hook them to the controller box, and they’ll inform the LED unit up on the dash when you’re dangerously close.
Vigo Bluetooth Headset
Why is there a Bluetooth headset in the safety section, you ask? Vigo’s headset lets you make hands-free calls, with noise cancellation, but it’s also an alert system. It plays sounds, vibrates, or flashes LEDs to keep you awake when it senses driver drowsiness.
FOBO Tire Plus
Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS) make sure all your tires are inflated properly and evenly, so you get the best mileage and wear. FOBO’s system is wireless. The little valve stems talk to a receiver, which in turn send info to your smartphone. You use an app to monitor the tires of as many as 19 cars for leaks or flats—or if someone steals a FOBO valve stem monitor. Get the Tire Plus for tires up to 87 PSI, or the less expensive regular version for tires less than 50 PSI. They also make versions for motorcycles, heavy vehicles, and more.
If you’ve got a compatible Garmin device, this is a no-brainer for new parents. The babyCam attaches to your car’s headrest to provide a video view (even at night) of your little one strapped in the back. Up to four cameras are supported in one system. Alerts remind you that your kid is in the back when you get out of the vehicle.
Evenflo Advanced SensorSafe Embrace DLX Infant Car Seat
You may not need a view of the backseat, but a reminder that your child is still in the car will always be welcome to harried parents. Evenflo’s DLX car seat issues reminder tones that your tyke is still strapped in as you arrive at your destination. The seat works with a dongle plugged into the OBD-II port.
Are We There Yet?
Keep kids occupied with tech in the backseat so you don’t have to hear those four dreaded words quite as much. At least until they have to pee.
iKross Car Headrest Mount Holder Car Kit for Tablet
A tablet mounted on the back of your car seat is the modern equivalent of putting a TV in the back—only better. This unit holds just about any tablet of any size (up to 10.2 inches) and is adjustable with 360 degrees of rotation, in case your kids prefer to watch their cartoons in portrait mode.
Audiovox 7-inch Digital LED Back-Lit Headrest DVD Player
DVDs are still a thing—and they’re a thing you can use to keep kids occupied in the back of the car. There are many options to buy screens with DVD players that mount on the seat; this one becomes part of the seat, with a 7-inch screen integrated into the headrest itself. It can work with headphones, or play through the radio with its FM transmitter.
Melodeez Kid Sized Universal Wireless Infrared Headphones
You want peace? At the very least, buy a headphone splitter so that kids watching together don’t have to pipe the sound through your speakers. Or, splurge on some pairs of these wireless headphones for everyone to wear. They work wirelessly via infrared or wired using a 3.5mm port and come in a variety of colors.
Not everything fits into a nice little niche area of auto add-on. The items below are less categorizable—but nonetheless useful.
FRiEQ Car Air Freshener and Ionic Air Purifier
Got a subtle stink in the car from kids, pets, gym clothes, or that one jerk in the car pool who won’t put out the stoogie? We won’t judge—and neither will anyone else if you plug in this air ionizer that can get the interior back to a refreshing smell.
Nonda ZUS Smart Car Locator & USB Car Charger
A USB car charger that plugs into the DC outlet/lighter port of your car is pretty standard equipment today. Nonda’s ZUS adds a little something extra: a car locator. Pull out your smartphone, load the app, and it’ll throw up directional arrows to get you to your vehicle no matter where you parked. The ZUS doesn’t need power for this—the location is stored in the app.
Etekcity 360 Degree Magnetic Air Vent Universal Car Mount Holder with Smart-Snap Technology
Magnetic air vent smartphone mounts have become all the rage in the last couple of years—they’re incredibly easy to install, and don’t damage your phone or take up space. The latest update is this model from Etekcity, which includes 360-degree rotation and an angle-adjustment swivel.
Energizer 12V 180-Watt Cup Inverter With 4 USB
Every car should have an inverter that lets your DC power receptacle provide juice to all your AC-based toys and gear. Many of them fit right into a cup holder. Don’t mess around, get a cup inverter that provides the goods. The Energizer 12V 180-watt provides not only a standard power plug but also has 4 USB charging ports; the four ports share 2.1-amp service, so using just one to plug in a phone will charge it quickly.
iSaddle Self Adhesive Tie Mout Cable Clips
$5.59 for 20
If you buy everything we’re recommending, it’s not going to take long for the cables to get utterly out of control. Buy a bag of these clips to try to keep them orderly (or you could get a roll of professional gaffer tape to stick them all down).
Wagan (EL6224) 12V Cooler/Warmer
This may be as close as you get to having a refrigerator or oven in the car. The Wagan cooler/warmer plugs into the 12-volt DC direct for power or to recharge the battery. It shifts with a switch between hot (140 degrees Fahrenheit) and cold (36 degrees). Its 24-liter capacity holds the equivalent of a 24-pack of 12-ounce cans of soda, or four 2-liter bottles.
Apps For the Auto
Using a smartphone opens up a wealth of options to make the entire driving experience so much better. Here are a few free mobile apps to download before you hit the road.
GasBuddy has been around in one form or another for a decade. As a mobile app for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry, it has reached its full potential by helping you find the cheapest petrol no matter where you are. The more you use it, the better your chance of winning some free gasoline.
A regular winner of our Editors’ Choice award for mobile maps, Google Maps is the best way to instantly add a GPS to your vehicle. Read the Best Free GPS Apps for Your iPhone for other solid choices.
Hudway may be sound like a gimmick, but for some it could be invaluable. It’s essentially another GPS app, but it displays directions by showing a high-contrast reverse image. Place your smartphone on the dash to see the reflected image in the windshield and voila—instant heads-up display (HUD).
Honk will hook you up with help if you’re out of gas, get a flat, need a jump, get locked out, or even if you’re stuck in a ditch. Honk collects the cash to pay the service that help you out—it’s like Uber for towing! Prices start at $49 per service.
Another AAA-meets-Uber roadside assistance app/service, Urgent.ly has iOS and Android apps to get you help, fast. It’s formed partnerships with other services like MapQuest, Zubie, and Dash that make it very convenient to access.
Not to be outdone completely by the startups, the American Automobile Association’s app will also put out the call for roadside assistance if you need it. Of course, you need to have a paid AAA membership.
A few communities have gone digital when it comes to parking. If you live in a place that supports it, or plan to visit one, that supports it, you’ll find the Parkmobile app (for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and even Amazon Fire) invaluable. Rather than running to ticket machines to put a piece of paper on the dash, you can walk away from the car while using the app to send your zone number in. The app is tied to your license plate number. As the meter-checkers go around to give tickets, a scan of your plate will show you’re all paid up. Best of all, if your “meter” is about to run out, you’ll get notifications on your phone and can re-up for as long as you need.
This post was originally published on: Pcmag.