*This post originally published on pcmag.com – October 30, 2018
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. Amazing! The other had a talking Chryslerthat would voice warnings such as “The door…is ajar!” or “Your directional signal is…still on!” It was awesome.
These days, my parents are grandparents. They drive a Toyota Prius that’s got more technology than a Federation shuttlecraft; it practically has an iPad grafted into the dash. That’s because mobile technology and vehicles are finally coalescing.
But 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.
Smarter Heads: Android Auto and Apple CarPlay
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 offers a way to connect your phone to your in-car entertainment system for easy, hands-free access to calls, messages, and a slew of apps like GPS, music, and podcasts.
Lots of new cars support Android Auto and CarPlay from the get-go, but older vehicles are not entirely out of luck. Many aftermarket systems support them, with prices 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 relatively standard now. It can get pricey, as pro installation is recommended, and can cost from $200 to $600 for parts and labor on top of the head unit.
Keep in mind Android Auto doesn’t require a head unit. Simply mount your phone or tablet on the dash, and you can skip the fancy hardware and just use the Android Auto app.
In addition to use with Apple CarPlay, the almost $1,000 Pioneer AVIC-W8400NEX head unit also includes its own GPS with 7.9 million points of interest. It includes Wi-Fi for communicating with your smartphone so you don’t have to worry about Bluetooth problems, but you also can just use a wired USB connection. And it supports Android Auto, as well—including Miracast to make Android Audio truly wireless.
Kenwood Excelon DDX905S
Another head unit complete with Apple and Android support, the Kenwood Excelon DDX905S is even listed as “Waze-ready,” so it’s bound to be a fantastic GPS based on that alone. That is has built-in Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB, inputs for rear cameras, and an attractive 6.75-inch capacitive touch screen really sells this $899 device.
The Pioneer AVH-3300NEX is not just another head unit that supports CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s a rare single-DIN head unit radio that supports both. A slide-out 7-inch resistive touch screen brings both phone-based interfaces, and a whole lot of other features, into the dash of vehicles with only a single-DIN slot. That makes it our Editors’ Choice. $449.95 at Amazon.
The Hudly portable head-up display (HUD) is ideal for projecting navigation directions and other info from your smartphone while driving. Although we’d like to see more in the way of built-in functionality, it’s a solid way to safely display navigation directions and other information while you drive.
Much more than just another dash cam, the Klashwerks Raven ($299) is touted as a complete connected car system that lets you see where you’re going, where you’ve been, and how you got there. It uses two cameras, LTE cellular technology, and your car’s OBD-II (On-Board Diagnostics) port to let you monitor activity on the road ahead as well as inside your car, using your phone or a desktop PC.
Garmin Speak Plus with Amazon Alexa
For voice-only navigation, an inconspicuous dash cam, and Amazon Alexa controls combined in one device, the Garmin Speak Plus is a great buy. It’s discreet and easy to install. And it responds to voice commands, just like an Amazon Echo—because with Alexa on board, it can do everything your house-bound Echo does. $199.99 at Amazon.
Cobra CDR 855 BT
The Cobra CDR 855 BT is a Bluetooth dash cam that also measures your speed, acts as a radar detector, and alerts you to speed and red light cameras. It features a two-inch LCD with a 160-degree viewing angle, and a G-Sensor so you can automatically capture and save video if an impact is detected. It can also be untethered from your car, doubling as a portable action camera. It’s a great deal if you want a dash cam with safety features and radar alerts, though you’ll need a separate device to get driving directions and traffic alerts. $118.54 at Amazon.
Owl Car Cam
The Owl Car Cam is a dash cam that also works as a security device, and has a 4G LTE connection so you can view all of your video from anywhere right on your smartphone. It’s got handy features like remote access and two-way audio. There’s also an inside camera, so it shoots what’s happening in and out of your car.
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 an Editors’ Choice.
Viper SmartStart Pro
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 Pro. 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, 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.
The Automatic Pro has one cost: the $129.95 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), as well as a web-based interface. The app works with IFTTT so events in the car can trigger things that happen with other web services.
T-Mobile SyncUp Drive
Most wireless carriers offer a way to connect practically any car to the cloud by plugging an internet-enabled dongle into its onboard diagnostic (OBD) port. The T-Mobile SyncUp Drive adds the ability to create an in-vehicle Wi-Fi hotspot and free roadside assistance via the Allstate Motor Club. It also provides vehicle tracking for fleet operators—or really large families—since up to 24 vehicles can be added to a single account. It also comes with free roadside assistance.
Hum+ by Verizon
With Hum+ by Verizon you get an OBD-II dongle, a Bluetooth speakerphone/controller to clip to the visor, and a USB charger to plug into the cigarette lighter/DC connector receptacle. The price now is $40 to start service, $29.99 for equipment, then $10 per month.
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.
Optionally, get the HumX, which is pretty much the same but includes an in-vehicle Wi-Fi hotspot and a speaker. That version ups the price to $15 per month after a $69.99 equipment charge.
Fixd OBD-II Active Car Health Monitor
The very affordable Fixd Active Car Health Monitor plugs into your vehicle’s OBD-II port and connects to an app on your phone to provide maintenance reminders and other helpful info to keep your car in top shape. It only costs $59.99.
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). 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). The family version starts at $99.95 per device per year; you an have up to four devices per account.
Bay Alarm Medical Splitsecnd In-Car Medical Alert
The Bay Alarm Medical Splitsecnd In-Car Medical Alert plugs into your car to give you one-touch access to a live emergency response agent. It also has crash detection and GPS so emergency responders can locate you even if you’re unable to tell them where you are. It’s pricey, but important enough to earn a PCMag Editors’ Choice award.
weBoost Drive 4G X
If you simply desire better cell signal in your car, use a booster. Stick a $479.99 weBoost Drive 4G X 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, a full 50 decibel gain. It works with all the major North American carriers. An optional indoor kit means the booster can go in the house with you to enhance your signal there, as well.
Ion Cassette Bluetooth Adapter
There is a Bluetooth option for those with a car stereo so ancient, so archaic, that is has a cassette player. The inexpensive Ion Cassette Bluetooth 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 six hours.
Energizer 180-Watt Cup Power Inverter
Every car should have an inverter that lets your DC power receptacle provide juice to all of your AC-based toys and gear. Many of them fit right into a cupholder. Don’t mess around, get a cup inverter that provides the goods. The $39.99 Energizer Cup Power Inverter provides not only a standard power plug but also has four USB charging ports; the four ports share 2.1-amp service, so using just one to plug in a phone will charge it quickly.
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? Plug in the FRiEQ Car Freshener and Ionic Air Purifier and get the interior back to smelling brand new.
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 current modem technologies like 802.11ac and up to 15 devices for over 10 hours, making it the best way to connect to Verizon’s network.
It’s worth noting you can also use your smartphone for Wi-Fi. See How to Turn Your Phone into a Wi-Fi Hotspot.
Vigo Bluetooth Headset
Vigo’s $99 Bluetooth 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.
Nonda ZUS Smart Tire Safety Monitor
Properly inflated tires can save you money on fuel. But pulling out the tire pressure gauge can get cumbersome, and before you know it, you’ve gone months without checking. That won’t happen with Nonda’s $119.99 ZUS Smart Tire Safety Monitor. Anti-theft tire pressure sensors screw onto your tire valves (no matter the make or model) and send pressure and temperature information to your smartphone in real-time. You’ll receive a notification if anything looks out of the ordinary, and you’ll be warned of slow leaks before they develop into something more serious.
Audiovox 7-Inch 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.
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. The iKross 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.
Wagan (EL6224) 12V Cooler Warmer
This might be as close as you get to having a refrigerator or oven in the car. The $84.55 Wagan 12V 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.
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. It 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.
GasBuddy has been around in one form or another for over a decade. As a mobile app it has reached its full potential by helping you find the cheapest petrol no matter where you are.
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.
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, you’ll find the Parkmobile app 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. Other similar apps include SpotHero, Parking Panda, PayByPhone, SPOT, and ParkMe, to name a few.