DIY guide: How to add new tech to old cars

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For those of you jealous of all the cool tech in the new cars my colleague Bill Howard gets to write about, there are lots of alternatives for adding technology to your current car. In most cases, add-ons aren’t as slick, or as powerful, as the versions you can get if you go all-in for a new vehicle. But they’re a lot less expensive, and some are quite effective. Done correctly, aftermarket solutions can even more flexible and future-proof than OEM systems. Remember when car phones were built into vehicles, and they got old really fast? Or when navigation systems all got built in and they got old really fast? Now, most of us use our smartphones for both of those functions — tied into our cars.

Many of the add-ons we’ll look at in this article also leverage your smartphone, while others take advantage of the rapid pace of change and decrease in cost of consumer technologies.

Dash cams

The Thinkware x550 is an excellent dashcam, but its claimed ADAS features left a lot to be desiredNearly every day we are treated to a viral video of some sort recorded by a car-mounted camera. Whether it is a traffic accident, an encounter with police, or simply a shocking event that randomly unfolded in front of a car (several include plane crashes), they have helped fuel dramatic growth in dash-mounted and windshield-mounted cameras (e.g. dash cams). First generation cameras were pretty straightforward, recording either constantly, or when a button was pushed. If your smartphone was mounted appropriately, you could even mimic one using a simple app. As the market for simple cameras has saturated, vendors have begun to layer on additional features to help differentiate their offerings.

GPS allows many current dash cams to provide speed and red light camera alerts, as well as other location-specific information. It also allows them to estimate your vehicle’s speed, which is a key element in layering on driver safety functions. Combined with a gyroscope for sensing force, units like the Thinkware X550 that I road-tested can also be certain to record impact events — even if you don’t have continuous recording turned on. One additional tweak Thinkware has added to the X550 is that impact footage is recorded on both the SD card and internal memory, providing redundancy in the event the camera is damaged in the collision. Our local auto-add-on dealer and installer also recommends Blackvue as a well-built, reliable brand of dash cam.

Some dash cam vendors also offer a backup camera option. This is an attractive way to go for those wanting the additional safety of a backup camera — as these integrated solutions offer a smaller lag than the backup cameras solutions that rely on connecting directly to your smartphone. Typically these are wired to your dash cam, so be prepared for some DIY or paying an installer.

Dash cam driver safety features leave a lot to be desired

One issue with using a dashcam for safety is that best placement is high on the windshield -- that can make it hard to see the display behind the rearview mirrorAs part of trying to stand out from the crowd, dash cam vendors have been racing to market with ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) features. They include Lane Departure Warning (LDW), Front Collision Warning System (FCWS), and Front Vehicle Departure Warning (FVDW). Those are the same terms used to describe common features available in high-end new car packages. However, that’s where the similarity ends. One obvious difference is that add-on systems currently on the market can’t actually control your car. The best they can do is warn you with a sound, so that you know to take action. Of course, that takes time — while you hear the sound, identify it, sort of the threat, and react. It also isn’t fail safe if you’re not paying attention or are incapacitated in some other way. Done correctly and reliably, even a warning can be a lifesaver, but a non-reliable system is essentially like not having one at all.

Unfortunately, simple dash cam-based systems are not that reliable when it comes to safety features. Being based on a single camera that doesn’t have all the processing power of a high-end GPU or CPU, means that all the low-end and midrange dash cam products we tested produced plenty of false positives and missed lots of other incidents. In particular, driving along a mottled-sunlight-and-shade road frequently set off the Front Collision warning. Conversely, in many cases driving up to a stopped vehicle at a fairly high speed often didn’t cause a warning. The Front Vehicle Departure warning is a convenience feature, but often was triggered when cross traffic went by if I was first in line at a stoplight. If you weren’t paying attention and started to move based on the alert, it could be dangerous.

If you want ADAS-like features, step up to a pro-installed system

At one point, it looked like there would be a real aftermarket ADAS solution from startup Cruise Automation. However, GM has acquired the company, and is planning to use its technology for shared vehicle fleets, and not sell it directly to consumers. However, by using aftermarket camera and radar-assisted systems, you can get ADAS-type warnings in your current vehicle.

Israeli startup Mobileye came out with some of the first products in the market. Its Mobileye 560 has been out for four years, but is still the favorite of professional installers. It has an integrated vision chip (and is very similar to the camera and processor that is traditionally built into the Tesla Model S). It’s much better at motion detection and object recognition than simple dash cams, but of course it still can’t control your car. Mobileye hasn’t come out with a new model for several years, although it does still do updates to the software. Instead it has been focusing on integrated systems for car makers.

Like other dash cam solutions, Mobileye’s is camera-only. But by relying on precise calibration (meaning professional installation), and a more powerful on-board vision processor, it achieves significantly better results. It can even recognize speed limit signs. The downside is you’ll need a professional installer and a budget of about $1,000. Mobileye has proven particularly popular with older drivers, and with parents purchasing them for their children who are new drivers.

Recently, Mobileye has been in the news for its messy breakup with partner Tesla in the wake of a crash in Florida, and Mobileye criticizing Tesla for deploying its products inappropriately. Competitor SafeDrive goes a step further by using a radar in its RD-140 family of products. The base RDR unit uses a front radar only, while the higher-end model adds a camera for lane departure warnings. Either one requires a pro installation, and will set you back about $1,500 to $2,000.

Backup cameras

Backup cameras are considered so important that they will be required on all vehicles sold in the US by May 2018. In the meantime, there are literally hundreds of aftermarket products, but all leave something to be desired. For starters, unless you have wires for a trailer, you’ll need to tap into your car’s internal wiring for power. Then, especially if you’ve wired to your tail lights (so that the camera and its app “know” when you’re backing up), you’ll have to wait for it to turn on each time you shift into reverse. If you opt for the convenience of an otherwise wireless install, then the camera has to connect to your phone over Wi-Fi, adding some hassle, and some lag, to the display. The lag, in particular, takes some getting used to.

Pearl’s RearVision is the cat’s-meow of backup cameras

RearVision from Pearl includes an OBD-II adapter for improved connectivity and responsivenessOne backup camera system that stands out from the rest is Pearl Auto’s RearVision. First, it is solar powered, so you don’t have to wire it in at all. Second, the camera talks to a dedicated, always-on OBD-II adapter (that simply plugs into the OBD-II port found under your dashboard in all cars made since 1996). The adapter is powered by a beefy 8-core CPU — the same one used in the Galaxy S5. The dedicated connection and horsepower mean it can avoid some of the lag and connectivity issues inherent in systems that connect directly to your phone. It also has enough horsepower to run computer vision algorithms for 3D reconstruction and object detection. The OBD-II adapter in turn uses your smartphone screen for display. Eventually, you may also be able to see your engine data from the OBD-II port, but that isn’t a primary focus for Pearl. (If that’s all you really want, there are lots of standalone OBD-II adapters that will show data on your smartphone).

Pearl’s RearVision uses 2 HD cameras: one a regular daylight camera, and the other optimized for Infrared and night vision. They transmit to the video processing software running on the OBD-II adapter. The vision software allows it to create a 3D map of the area behind your car, and provide obstacle detection warnings. In my time with a RearVision, I found both the simulated car-trajectory guidelines and the obstacle detection (technically in beta) to be quite accurate. I was also stunned by the quality of its images at night; seriously, it’s impressive.

Currently, RearVision doesn’t notice cross traffic as well as systems with dedicated sensors built into appropriately-equipped new cars. However, it is an active area of research for the team at Pearl. When I spoke with them, they sounded optimistic that they’d be able to do an excellent job on this feature as well. Because the system is designed to be fully upgradeable (both the software on the adapter and the app on the phone), this is the type of capability they will be able to roll out to all users. Because the Pearl isn’t wired, it can’t tell currently tell when your vehicle is in reverse, so you need to launch the app yourself to view the camera. Longer-term, Pearl has some ideas about how to harness OBD data to accomplish this.

In the meantime, my solution is to dedicate a second phone (an old one) to the Pearl, and mount it near my center console. I use my main phone, mounted on my dash, for navigation and entertainment (via Android Auto). The only catch with Pearl is the price. At $500, this unit is several times the price of most of its competition. But if you have the budget, it is hands-down the best product in its category. It also saves you from having to pay for the installation of a wired system, so its total cost is closer. Plus, I expect it to continue to improve, which is not true of the typical backup camera.

I found it awkward to launch the Pearl app when needed so I mounted an old phone to my center console and dedicated it to the backup app

I found it awkward to launch the Pearl app when needed, so I mounted an old phone to my center console and dedicated it to the backup app

Add-on backup cameras with dedicated consoles

If you want a system that minimizes lag, but don’t want to spring for a Pearl, then one with a dedicated monitor may be your best bet. For best results, running a wire from the console to the backup camera is needed, but many offer a wireless option. Some come as part of a more complete system, like the Magellan MiVue, or the Rand-McNally OverDryve. OverDryve is actually built around a tablet that can also provide navigation and in-car entertainment. One cautionary note is that most of these systems use proprietary interconnects, so you can’t mix and match consoles and cameras between brands.

If you want to see more than just what’s behind you, ImageNEXT’s omniDrive provides a full 360-degree surround camera solution. Using four cameras on the corners of your car, it synthesizes a ‘birds-eye’ view — like that found on some new high-end cars. When omniDrive is available — expected to be in early 2017 — it will clearly require a professional install. The company also hasn’t announced pricing yet, but I am planning to get a demo when the company shows it off at CES in January.

Where to start?

Based on my experience with various devices and apps, a backup camera system is the most helpful for safety. A dash cam will get you video records, but I wouldn’t bother with anything less than a Mobileye if you also expect it to warn you about approaching cars or pedestrians. Separately, as an overall tech upgrade, getting a new stereo head unit that supports Android Auto or Apple CarPlay will upgrade your nav and entertainment experience over relying on your phone alone — although you can at least mimic the Android Auto experience with Google’s standalone app now. If your car has limited visibility out the back, or you get tired of swiveling your head completely around all the time, a quality backup solution is a great place to start.

Check out our ExtremeTech Explains series for more in-depth coverage of today’s hottest tech topics.

(Top image credit: Mad Max: Fury Road)



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