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Jeremy Laukkonen

Jeremy's Car Tech Blog


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Maps are Better Than GPS Units

Monday May 19, 2014
maps are way better than gps

Back in high school, one of the final assignments in Driver's Ed was to plan out a road trip. As part of the exercise, we plotted our routes with honest-to-goodness paper maps, calculated gas usage based on the cars we owned (or wished we owned), and even figured in lodging, meals, and snacks. I chose the Cascade Loop for my trip (including a stop at my great grandfather's cabin on south Whidbey Island), and I think that was the last time I ever used a paper map.

Although MapQuest was already a thing back then, if only just barely, and all of my road trips since then have been planned either online or with a GPS navigation unit, the exercise was definitely useful. I mean, there have to be some instances where a paper map is better than GPS, right?

1) Paper maps can't run out of batteries. This seems like an important one. Whatever people might say about how ungainly maps are, and how you can't ever seem to get them folded back up so that they'll fit back in the glove compartment, at least they don't have batteries that can die in the middle of a road trip. After all, it's not like most types of GPS units use a standardized micro- or mini USB charger that can be plugged right into your cigarette lighter receptacle or anything.

2) You can't fold a GPS unit into a fan when the A/C breaks. What else? Oh yeah, have you ever tried to fan yourself with a dinky little GPS unit? Some of those things are hardly bigger than my wallet. And forget the A/C breaking. Gas is expensive these days, and rolling down the windows would reduce my gas mileage, right? Bring on the map-fans.

3) It would be a shame to let all that cub/girl/boy scout training go to waste. Any baby can plug an address into a GPS unit or a mapping website and watch it spit out directions. What's the use in knowing how to read a map and plan a route if you're just going to let a computer do all the work?

5) You can't wear a GPS unit as a hat. Sure, you say, you don't want to wear your GPS unit as a hat. I'll just be over here not getting cancer from the sun thanks to the fancy sailor hat that I folded my map into. Who needs GPS, anyway.

6) Maps won't ruin the surprise of a traffic jam. People like surprises, right? And people like being entertained on a road trip? So what's the deal with GPS units that include navigation traffic data? Who doesn't have fond memories of getting stuck behind a four car pileup when you're halfway to nowhere on a long, summer road trip, and your kid brother/sister/dog/guinea pig really has to go to the bathroom? Stop spoiling everything, GPS.

7) You can't use a GPS unit to light a signal fire after it gets you lost. So let's say the worst has happened, and you're lost out in the middle of nowhere. You're out of gas, the buzzards are circling, and you need to signal for help. What would you rather have: a nice, flammable map, or a chunk of plastic and transistors? Good luck signalling for help after TomTom leads you into the OceanOcean.

If you still aren't thoroughly convinced that paper maps are the way of the future, you may be wondering:

Image courtesy Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Riser/Getty Images

April is Distracted Driving Month

Tuesday April 1, 2014
distracted driving month

April is distracted driving month, which makes this a great time to discuss the inherent dangers that come part and parcel with a lot of the technologies that are covered on this site. Although there are a lot of car safety technologies and ADAS that are designed to make you safer on the road, basically anything that draws your attention away from the road can potentially put you in danger. And that includes everything from poorly-designed infotainment system user interfaces to cell phones -- even if you're responsible and pair a handsfree device.

During 2013's distracted driving month, the NHTSA produced an infographic that outlined the dangers of all types of distracted driving, and some of their numbers were surprising. This year, the agency is focusing specifically on the dangers of using a cell phone in your car when you're on the clock at work, and the numbers are no less surprising. For instance, car crashes represent the leading cause of all workplace deaths in the United States, and you're four times more likely to get into a car crash if you're using a cell phone.

Even more worrisome is the fact that these numbers include those of us who are responsible enough to pair our phones to a Bluetooth car stereo or Bluetooth car kit. In one instance, a company had to pay out over $21 million in damages after their employee caused a car crash while using a handsfree device, which was required by company policy.

Although it's undeniable that using a handsfree device is the safest way to use a cell phone in a car, but the NHTSA hopes to use the looming sword of Damocles that these big lawsuits represent to convince businesses to change their cell phone policies. In order to drive their point home, the agency also reports that only one percent of companies experienced productivity decreases after instituting policies aimed at reducing distracted driving.

Whether you're going to put your cell phone down this month, or just play it safe with a handsfree device, there are a lot of other technologies that can prevent accidents from distracted driving:

Curb Your Road Rage

Sunday March 16, 2014
road rage

Or your car might do it for you.

Government agencies and private security firms have been using complicated facial recognition software for years. This sort of technology started out as a way to use computers to do the heavy lifting of sorting through visual data and searching for specific people, but it has actually gotten to the point where the right hardware and software can actually determine a person's emotional state from his or her facial expressions.

And this technology might be in your next car. In fact, many of the building blocks, like collision avoidance systems, are already in place.

The purported goal? To curb incidences of road rage.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology teamed up with PSA Peugeot Citroen to perform a study that they say turned up promising results. The study involved placing an infrared camera on the dash behind the steering wheel and connecting it to facial recognition software. The software was specifically designed to recognize anger and disgust, which are both associated with road rage. The basic conceit behind the study is that irritation can cause drivers to become less attentive, and road rage often leads to catastrophic accidents, so in-car emotion detection systems could have real world safety implications.

The natural progression of this idea is that some future "emotion detection system" might have the ability to automatically take action if it determines that a driver is displaying negative emotions. For instance, this type of system might kick in and provide emergency braking or lane departure warnings if the driver appears irritated -- and thus less attentive. Or it might even take more drastic measures if the driver appears enraged.

The idea of a production model ever having the ability to decide that you're too mad to drive on your own might seem like science fiction, but all of the basic building blocks are actually in place. If you go out and buy a brand new car today, in fact, there's a very real chance that it could have everything that's needed to execute this type of system except for the software.

For instance, the EPFL study makes use of the same sort of detection methods that are already in place for some driver alert systems. Some of these systems actually use dash-mounted infrared cameras to look for signs of driver drowsiness in the form of drooping eyelids. Although facial recognition software that's capable of discerning emotions is a lot more complicated, the same basic principles are at work: if the driver alert system notices your eyelids drooping, it can sound an alarm that may only turn off if you pull over and get out of your car.

If the infrared cameras that are already used in driver alert systems were to be implemented in emotion-detection systems, they could tie into a whole grab bag of advanced driver assistance systems and safety technologies. Irritation might trigger a lane-keeping or lane departure warning system, and signs of impending road rage might use automatic braking systems to precharge the brakes or even activate them, which would bring you to a screeching halt whether you want it or not.

Is this the sort of safety tech that you want in your next car? How about in the car of that guy who tailgated or brake checked you last week? Or, taking this whole concept a little further, what if this same software was able to recognize when a driver is talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device like a Bluetooth stereo or earpiece? We already have laws against using cellphones popping up all over the place -- why not deputize our cars, too?

Image courtesy of Josh Greenfield, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Dealing With Dead Batteries

Tuesday February 25, 2014

Winter should be winding down by now in the Northern Hemisphere, but that's very cold comfort indeed when you're sitting in the middle of a snow storm with a dead battery and a car that just won't start. Last month, when we covered the potential fallout from a dead battery, we promised to provide a rundown on how to deal with a dead car battery, and there are really two main solutions (aside from calling roadside assistance), both of which require a little forethought.

If you're really into the whole preparedness thing, then you probably have your battery checked (or check it yourself) on a regular basis. For the rest of us, it's nice to have a little insurance policy in the form of a jump box, a charger, or both. Jump boxes are essentially just sealed car batteries with built-in jumper cables, but they can be real life savers, and not just in the colder winter months. Whether your battery has died from "natural causes" in the middle of a snow storm, or you just forgot to turn your headlights off after a particularly hectic day of work, a fully charged will save you the trouble of trying to find someone who is willing to provide a jump start.

Since jump boxes are essentially just neatly-packaged car batteries, they can also function as portable power packs for anything that runs off 12V. Most of them come with a built-in 12v accessory socket, and some even have built-in inverters. Although you probably won't be running your fridge off one of these jump box power packs, they do provide a better, safer option than relying on a car inverter during a power outage.

Of course, it's important to remember that a jump box is just a band-aid fix. It can be incredibly hard on your alternator to drive around with a completely dead battery, which is why a battery charger is the better, safer choice in some situations. For instance, if your battery goes dead at home, and you can afford to wait while it charges up, you'll be doing yourself a favor in the long run. You may even want to invest in a charger that has a "boost" or "jump start" setting, which will allow you to use it for a jump start in a pinch. There are a few factors to consider when choosing a jump starter, but owning both a portable unit and a plug-in unit will cover all of the bases.

Regardless of how you choose to deal with a dead battery, it's always important to follow the correct procedures. If your owner's manual includes specific instructions, then it's always a good idea to start there. If not, then there are some general tips that can help you use a jump starter safely.

Cold Kills Batteries

Sunday January 26, 2014

Both extreme hot and cold are tough on batteries, but car batteries tend to start dropping like flies right along with the mercury each winter. The fact that every battery lists its "cold cranking amperage" in addition to a different, higher, cranking amperage, is no mistake. Freezing temperatures slow the chemical reactions inside lead acid batteries to a crawl, which is why it's so common to trudge through the snow to your car on a cold winter morning, stick the key in the ignition, and hear that familiar labored grunt, click, or nothing at all.

A dead battery can be enough of a headache on its own, and we'll be covering a few ways to deal with them next month, but the potential inconveniences that a dead battery can cause often spread far beyond the fact that your car won't start. Every electronic device in your car that has a "keep alive" memory function gets reset right along with your battery, which is why OBD-II vehicles will fail emissions if the battery has died (or been disconnected) recently. In order to save yourself a repeat trip, you can use an ELM327 scanner that hooks up to your phone (or a more conventional OBD-II scanner or code reader) to verify that all of your readiness monitors have ran since the battery died.

Of course, most head units also rely on the battery for a "keep alive" function, which means you lose all of your presets when the battery dies. And as if that wasn't annoying enough, some car radios come with a built-in security "feature" that locks them up tight whenever they lose battery power. Of course, that means your simple dead battery problem might lock you out of your stereo until you put in the right car radio code.

If that happens, and you don't already have the code written down somewhere, there are a handful of different ways to find a car radio code. Your local dealer might be able to help you, it's sometimes possible to obtain the right code from the manufacturer of the head unit, and there are also paid services out there that will provide you with the right code for a fee.

In case all of that fails, you might find yourself in need of a replacement head unit. Of course, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most head units that come with a security code "feature" are OEM, which means that replacing your bricked radio is almost certainly going to result in an upgrade. There are a ton of different head unit options available, and you might want to start with our head unit buyer's guide, or even our newbie's guide to car audio if you're new to all of this car audio stuff.

If you're not sure what size your head unit is, you may find out rundowns on 1 DIN, 1.5 DIN, and 2 DIN helpful.

In other cases, where your head unit is built into climate controls or doesn't conform to the normal 1/1.5/2 DIN dimensions, you may need some type of an adapter kit to make everything work. Of course, you can always ditch the head unit altogether and just use your iPod without a head unit, although you'll probably have to buy a new amplifier (and possibly other hardware) to make it work.

How Much Does It Really Cost to Warm up a Car?

Thursday December 12, 2013
cold cars

For decades, the prevailing wisdom has been that you should always allow your car to idle and warm up before hitting the road. While modern fuel injection systems and emission controls have rendered the imperative to warm up your engine a thing of the past, this issue is still a contentious one. On the one side, you have groups like the Idling Gets You Nowhere campaign and the Hinkle Charitable Foundation arguing against ever idling from an environmental standpoint, and on the other side you have folks who have to deal with sub-zero temperatures all winter. While a car that is idled will undeniably produce more emissions than one that is simply driven, the fact is that it's both undeniably unsafe and downright uncomfortable to drive a car without idling it first once the mercury has dropped far enough.

You may also enjoy: 8 Ways to Kill the Chill

Is It Necessary to Idle a Car Before Driving It?

In most cases, and with most vehicles, idling to warm the engine up isn't strictly necessary. Older vehicles that lack fuel injection and modern emissions controls are the main exception to this rule, so you're typically going to be just fine to jump in any modern car, crank it over, wait ten or twenty seconds, and go. Other exceptions include situations where you're dealing with especially cold temperatures, in which case a block heater is a much better way to prevent engine damage than simply idling an engine that's been sitting in sub-zero temperatures all night.

Of course, all the block heaters and environmental hand-wringing in the world can't change the fact that it's both unsafe and uncomfortable to jump in a freezing car and just hit the road. Although a block heater will heat up the engine to a certain degree, it won't do anything to warm up the interior of the car or defrost the windows. To deal with those issues, you either need to idle your car or rig up some kind of portable heater (ideally on a timer or with a thermostat).

How Much Does Idling a Car Cost?

If you're going to take some of the chill off by idling your car (either via a remote car starter or by actually trudging out into the freezing cold), you might be curious about how much it's actually going to cost. While it's impossible to give a single figure that will work for everyone, due to all of the different factors that will affect how much gas you actually burn, the Argonne National Laboratory performed a study on three different engines, including a 1.8L Honda Civic, a 2.5L Ford Fusion, and a 3.6L Chevrolet Malibu.

For each of these engines, idling for 10 minutes will consume roughly:

  • 1.8L Honda Civic: .026 gal
  • 2.5L Ford Fusion: .082 gal
  • 3.6L Chevrolet Malibu: .14 gal

According to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report, the current national average for regular gasoline is about $3.25/gal, which means that idling your car for ten minutes is going to cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $0.08 - 0.45. Since fuel usage during idling tracks linearly with time (according to the ANL report), you can use those numbers to guestimate your costs if you idle for a longer or shorter period of time.

Of course, it's also important to remember that it's actually illegal to leave an idling car unattended in some states.

Is It Cheaper to Use a Space Heater to Warm up a Car?

According to the latest figures from the US Energy Information Administration, the national average price of electricity per KWh was about $0.125 in September. That figure will probably be somewhat higher as the winter drags on, but it's close enough to give us a general idea of how much it costs to run a space heater.

Let's say you find a 1000W plug-in car heater, and you run an extension cord out to it (either ganged to your block heater, or through other means), and you want to use it to heat up your car and defrost the windshields. Even if you leave it running for a whole hour, it's still only going to cost you about 13 cents (give or take, depending on where you live.) So, unless you're driving a car that has an engine in the 1 liter range, it's actually cheaper to run a space heater for an hour than it is to idle for ten minutes.

For more information about remote starting and getting warm in cold weather, check out: Image courtesy of ffg, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Volvo Dynamic Steering's"Epic Split"

Tuesday November 19, 2013
epic split

You may have seen Volvo's most recent promo piece, which features Jean-Claude Van Damme promoting "Volvo Dynamic Steering" technology in a pretty unique manner. If you haven't already seen it, the video basically consists of the Muscles from Brussels performing his trademark splits -- while standing on the sideview mirrors of two Volvo semi trucks. The kicker? They're driving backward. It's worth a look, so if you haven't seen it, check it out.

If you've ever driven a big truck (or even something like a large motorhome), you're probably familiar with the sort of road fatigue that can set in due to the constant steering corrections that you have to make. When you're driving something that big, you can end up fighting everything from crosswinds to the road surface itself, which is where Volvo's "dynamic steering" system comes in. Volvo Dynamic Steering is a feature of new Volvo trucks that is essentially an evolution of things like electronic steering, old-style lanekeeping assistance systems, and other related technologies that's capable of automatically making the sorts of small corrections that can keep a vehicle on the straight and narrow.

There has been a lot of commotion about whether the Van Damme "epic split" video is fake or not, primarily because it's just so hard to believe that two vehicles could maintain such a precise distance between one another -- let alone while driving backwards. In a teaser video, Van Damme (for comic effect) even asks, "We're going to drive forwards, of course?" to which the director of the video replies, "No, we will drive backwards."

This is obviously meant to drive home the ridiculousness of the situation. Even if you haven't ever driven something on the scale of one of these Volvo trucks, anyone who has ever backed a vehicle up with a trailer attached knows that the trailer can almost seem to have "a mind of its own." Of course, we're not dealing with super human drivers here -- we're dealing with technology, and advanced driver assistance systems have experienced revolutionary advances over the last several years.

We have cars that will essentially drive on the highway for you via adaptive cruise control, cars that can stop for you via automatic braking, cars that park themselves, cars that know the speed limit and stick to it, and pretty soon we'll have cars that combine all that stuff and obviate any need for a driver in the first place.

So, do you buy it? I'm willing to give Volvo (and Van Damme) the benefit of the doubt on this one, although I have to assume that he was at least wearing a (cleverly hidden or digitally scrubbed) safety harness. Either way, you have to admit that it is a pretty epic split.

Image courtesy of Volvo Trucks

Can Google Really Drive Better than You?

Tuesday October 29, 2013

It's been almost two decades since Deep Blue smoked Kasparov, and the machines haven't quite risen just yet. The entire technology landscape has shifted dramatically in the intervening time, and one of the current leaders in machine intelligence wasn't even incorporated until a year after the final Deep Blue/Kasparov rematch. That company, of course, is Google, and they're betting that they've got humans beat in something other than chess.

According to the MIT Technology Review, Google's Chris Urmson made claims at the Santa Clara ROBO Business conference earlier this week that Google's robocars are better at driving than you, or me, or anyone else out on the road. And considering the fact that some of the loudest opponents to self-driving cars have based their arguments around the question of safety, Urmson's claim is a potential game changer--provided that it's true.

How, exactly, can a computer be a better driver than a human? Well, a lot of it has to do with the safety features and advanced driver assistance systems that we're already driving around with. Some of these systems (e.g. anti-lock brakes, traction control, automatic braking) are designed to remove human error from the equation to begin with, and others (e.g. lane-keeping assistance, blind spot detection) include sensors that are capable of detecting vehicles and other objects, so a lot of the pieces are already in place.

What a self-driving car does is essentially replace the human factor with computer that, like Deep Blue, is capable of examining all of the relevant information and determining the next appropriate move. Of course, there's a huge difference between analyzing chess moves and making real-time, split-second decisions while moving through the flow of traffic, right?

According to two studies that Urmson presented at ROBO Business, there really isn't that much of a difference. Of course, the root of his claim owes more to human shortcomings than robotic prowess, since the studies compared data that was recorded during both human- and computer-operated driving sessions.

The results of these studies showed that Google's robocars were capable of stopping and accelerating more smoothly than the human drivers, which isn't too hard to believe. The studies also showed that the computer-controlled cars were better at maintaining constant following distances than human drivers. Of course, both of these tasks are pretty easy to automate. In fact, you can go out and buy a car today that can perform them. The feature is called adaptive cruise control, and some OEMs offer systems that are capable of functioning in stop-and-go traffic--just like a Google robocar.

Does any of this actually mean that Google can program a computer that's a better driver than you are? Google is betting that they can, but they've got a long way to go before everyone is on the same page.

Would you feel safe sharing the road with robocars? I'm not sure if I'm quite ready to see a driverless car pull up to a stop light next to me, but considering the questionable abilities of a lot of human drivers, Google might really be on to something here.

10 Reasons Why You Can't Live Without a Car Power Adapter

Monday September 2, 2013
microwave in use

Whether you're an eager early adopter, or a dyed in the wool luddite, there's no denying the fact that cars today come with more electronic gadgets and doodads than ever before, and the trend is increasing exponentially. So why in the world would you want to pile on with a car power inverter and even more junk in the form of portable electronic devices, accessories, and appliances? Well, maybe you don't, but you might be surprised at some of the inventive (and even life-saving) ways you can use a car power adapter (either in the form of an inverter or a DC/DC rectifier).

Check out the list after the jump!


10 Awesome Options to Augment Your Audio

Sunday August 11, 2013
car stereo

The old saying, "don't fix what isn't broken" holds a lot of water, but what, exactly, constitutes a broken car audio system? If you have a car stereo that works, it can be easy to write off the occasional crap, pop, or muddy-sounding note as "good enough" and leave it at that. Upgrading a car audio system takes a lot of time and money, right? Well, it doesn't have to, and we've put together a list of the top 10 ways you can get the most out of a flagging sound system.

Some of these options are more expensive than others, but virtually every one can be implemented without a system-wide upgrade. And every one can improve your listening experience, depending on your current car audio situation.

Check out the full list after the jump.


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