Car technology is moving as rapidly as other tech, but that’s a little awkward considering cars are far more expensive to upgrade than a phone or tablet. Factor in the growing range of budget cars that offer no bells and whistles to speak of, and many of us will feel like we’re falling behind when it comes to the latest gadgets for our vehicles—but don’t worry, we’re here to help.
Fortunately, there’s an alternative to buying a brand new car to get a handful of new features. There are numerous gadgets and gizmos you can buy to “upgrade” your car and make it a little less dumb than it was before. With gadgets such as these, no longer will you have to feel embarrassed at your lack of music choices while on a road trip or be reliant on paper maps to figure out where you’re going.
We’ve rounded up some of our favorites. Each of which will cover many situations where you could do with something a little more “smart” in your car.
1. Dash ($10-$99)
Since 1996, most cars have offered an OBD-II port—a form of diagnostics connection that’s typically located under the dashboard. Through it, you can easily plug in a special adapter that enables you to easily access data about your vehicle’s health and past history.
Dash is a free app that, tied into one of these sensors, will relay information such as distances driven, routes, fuel consumption, and engine health. By doing so, it can give you advice on how to drive more efficiently, tell you where you’ve parked at all times, and even offer a form of leaderboard function for competing for mileage with friends. It’ll work alongside various services such as Samsung SmartThings, Nest, Dropbox, Evernote, and IFTTT too.
To use Dash, you’ll need to buy an OBD-II Scan Tool. Prices are varied, with some scanners available for only $10. It depends on the age of your car and whether you need it to work for both Android and iPhone. We’d recommend spending a little more than the bare minimum, so that you get the best quality product. For an Android based solution, the ScanTool 427201 OBDLink LX Bluetooth is a great option, while if you’re an iPhone user, the Carista OBD2 Bluetooth Adapter is our recommended choice (both work with the Dash software, but if you wish to use the software that comes with product, ScanTool doesn’t have an iOS app).
The best part? Dash can potentially save you money in the long term. It’ll translate those baffling engine warning lights, tell you what’s wrong with your vehicle, before suggesting how much it’ll probably cost to repair. It’ll even automatically notify your close friends and family if there’s an issue and you’re stuck.
2. Pyle Car Backup Camera ($60)
Envious of those with cars that have parking sensors? Right there with you. They’re great for getting into those tight spaces easily and ensuring there are no kids or pets in your blind spot. The Pyle Car Backup Camera is great way to upgrade your car for safety and ease of parking.
It offers a 7-inch HD screen that you mount to the dashboard, along with a camera for the back of the vehicle. It’ll work in the dark plus it’s waterproof meaning you can always see what’s going on behind you whether it’s pitch black out or pouring rain. An accurate distance scale line display helps you line up properly within your space ensuring you don’t have to rely solely on your side mirrors.
The Pyle Car Backup Camera won’t be quite as effective as more pricier alternatives on the latest cars that include additional proximity sensors and the like but, as a budget alternative though, it’ll go a long way towards making you feel like your car is a little smarter (and safer) than before.
3. Vantrue R3 Dash Cam ($110)
It’s increasingly useful to have a dashcam recording while driving. If you have an accident, you have instant video footage to see what actually happened, but also it can be pretty fun to look back at any scenic routes you might have taken.
The Vantrue R3 Dash Cam offers an extensive array of features. Its Super HD video quality means it’ll spot license plates accurately within 5 meters, as well as work during night time conditions. A 170 degree wide angle means it can capture 4 lanes of traffic without distortion. A parking mode and motion detector also means it’ll keep an eye on any person or thing that comes into close contact with your car while it’s parked up too. It even includes a stop motion feature too so, security concerns aside, you can have a little fun making movies of your road trips.
4. TaoTronics Bluetooth Receiver ($15)
If your car doesn’t have a Bluetooth connection, there are plenty of options for adding the functionality easily. TaoTronics Bluetooth Receiver is one of the simplest, providing you have an AUX port on your car stereo. Just plug it right into the auxillary audio jack, and you can utilize hands-free calling and music playback in no time. The adapter will even easily between two Bluetooth-Enabled devices as and when needed. It’ll work alongside Siri too, thanks to its built-in microphone, ensuring it’s extra useful for iPhone owners.
5. Criacr Bluetooth FM Transmitter ($17)
No AUX port? I know your pain. Fortunately, there’s another easy and inexpensive way of adding Bluetooth, courtesy of your radio’s FM transmission. Plug the Criacr Bluetooth FM Transmitter into your car’s cigarette lighter and you can tune your radio into the correct signal in order to play music from your phone or transfer calls to your car’s speakers.
The gadget also provides dual USB charging ports meaning your charging needs are fairly well catered for. It might not be the most sleek or stylish of solutions, but it does the job.
6. ION Audio Cassette Adaptor ($20)
Your car is as old as dirt or you simply want a truly retro solution? The ION Audio Cassette Adaptor is a good call, easily turning your car’s underused cassette deck into a Bluetooth music receiver. It’ll save you the hassle of unsightly cables or complex setup procedures, linking your tunes to your car stereo as fast as you can pop it in the deck. The ION adapter has a 4+ hour battery life (you can recharge it, outside the tape deck, with a micro USB cable).
7. Garmin DriveLuxe 51 ($260)
The humble satnav is far from humble these days and an incredibly easy way to make your old car feel a little newer. The Garmin DriveLuxe 51 is one of the highest spec satnavs out there. It offers a lifetime of updated maps and traffic reports, along with live parking information so you always know where is best to park.
Alongside that is Bluetooth and WiFi, smart notifications, and voice activation meaning you won’t have to touch a thing while on the road. A 5″ touch screen ensures maps are clear and offers a similar experience like those fancy all-in-one dashboard units you’ve admired on newer vehicles.
Further, for those times your phone is out of battery or you have no data reception, the Garmin’s GPS functionality is a real lifesaver. Through it, you’ll still be able to track where you are and where you’re going, whether you’re in the middle of nowhere or in a bustling city.
It’s the kind of solution that’s particularly ideal if you’re looking for something that might help a less than tech savvy relative or friend, because it’s that user friendly and not dependent on cellular connectivity or a data plan.
8. Sony XAV-AX100 6.4″ Media Receiver ($350)
A more expensive and involved upgrade for your car, the Sony XAV-AX100 6.4″ Media Receiver is an ideal purchase if you’re keen to replace your car’s stereo with something a little more modern. The unit offers voice control via Apple Car Play and Android Auto, touch screen controls, and some powerful equalizer functions for the keen music fan.
If you’ve got a rear camera installed, it’ll also help you park. The Media Receiver will take a bit more effort to install than the other options here (and if you’re not confident you can pull apart your dash and do the wiring yourself it’ll come with an installation fee) but it’s the most effective solution if you want to make your car feel as current as a brand new vehicle.
There’s also an upgraded version of the same receiver that, for an extra $100, includes a CD player (great for folks with extensive physical media collections) and a Sirius satellite radio antenna.
9. HUDWAY Glass ($50)
In the near future, we’ll be able to enjoy tech like Exploride, offering a Heads Up Display on your windshield, offering every feature imaginable without requiring you to look away from the road. It’s a little way off though which is where HUDWAY Glass comes into its own, providing you a taste of the future that’s a bit heavier on novelty than functionality (but still really cool).
The product is a simple device that you place on your dashboard and then lay your smart phone on, screen up. The angled screen then, like a teleprompter, immediately reflects whatever is displayed on your smartphone towards you. In conjunction with special apps, you can enjoy navigation features, trip information, a speedometer, and details on what your average speed and mileage is.
It’s a little rudimentary looking and it’s only going to work with certain apps (you can’t use Google Maps, Waze, or any app not specifically designed for this reflected-screen design). However, at a budget price, it’s a potentially quite cool way of making your car feel rather futuristic without splashing for a BMW 7 Series or any of the other premium cars that come with built-in HUDs.