For some reason, I’ve always spent a lot of time driving. There was that decade where my in-laws lived 650 miles away, making for many long weekends spent on narrow, Northern Ontario highways. Then 13 years or so enjoying a 250-mile round trip commute for work, five to ten times a month. The past few years it’s been an ongoing series of long distance drives, punctuated with frequent camping trips towing a trailer. Having three kids — and sometimes two dogs — in the vehicle these days just adds to the distraction. Whether it’s running errands in our own city, navigating downtown Toronto in rush hour, trying to tow a trailer through construction in Montreal or cruising down I-75 for a few days, I’ve learned to appreciate every edge I can get when it comes to driving safety. When I was asked to have a look at iOnRoad, an Android collision warning app, my first thought was that this was going to be a gimmick at best and a driving distraction at worst. After spending months playing with the app, I’ve come to a different conclusion.
I like the idea behind iOnRoad. Collision avoidance systems have been offered in higher end cars for a few years now, but they tend to be priced as premium level options and haven’t yet filtered down to most entry level vehicles. But many people are already carrying around smartphones in their pockets, portable devices equipped with high resolution cameras, GPS and lots of processing power. Why not build an app that utilizes these components, turning that smartphone into a self-contained collision avoidance system? And that’s what iOnRoad does. The app (currently available as a free download for Android), provides a windshield or dashboard mounted system that scans the road ahead of your vehicle, monitors traffic in your lane and warns of potential collision events. The warning comes via audible alert, or through color code (green for safe, yellow for caution and red when in a high risk situation). The app can be front and center, with an attractive, heads up display; or you can run it in the background.
Setting up the software is straightforward. Download the app and then configure a few settings that control distance warning thresholds, whether you want to see the gap between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead displayed in seconds or a distance measurement, speed displayed in kilometers or miles per hour and a few others. Next, you mount your smartphone to your dashboard or windshield, horizontally, with the camera facing the road and the display facing the driver. The app will display bubble levels if the device is tilted too much, making it easy to optimally place it. Then drive. I found there’s a short lag while the smartphone acquires a GPS signal, but within thirty seconds or so, a green lane is painted in front of your car, your current speed is displayed and you’ll see labels overlaid over any vehicle in front of yours, color coded with current risk level. It may not be quite as sophisticated as a radar-based collision avoidance system, but it’s free and you can carry it from car to car.
Now for the big question: How well does iOnRoad work? The answer is a bit tricky, at least based on my own experience. When everything is functioning as expected, it does an impressive job. I’ve had the opportunity to throw a little bit of everything at the app — night driving, highway, city, rain-slicked roads and even ice. When everything clicks, it works as advertised. When a vehicle in front suddenly slows and the distance closes, you receive a warning that could make a real difference if your attention has lapsed momentarily, or you are distracted by two kids in the back seat arguing over who cheated at punch buggy.
The problem lies not so much in the app itself, but in its reliance on hardware and communications links that can vary in quality and/or capability. The first test phone the team sent was a decent enough handset as far as Android devices go (an LG, but I don’t recall the specific model), but it had an issue with the level sensors seemingly going haywire every few minutes and demanding repeated adjustment. It also suffered from poor GPS reception, and when the GPS went offline, iOnRoad was down for the count. A Samsung Galaxy S II that replaced the first handset was rock solid in terms of both GPS performance and positioning. But for some reason the distance calculations seemed to be off a bit when using this model. This is still beta software, so there are bound to be glitches, but I suspect varying hardware is going to be iOnRoad’s biggest challenge going forward and user experience may vary based on their smartphone. Currently, there are nine devices on the official support list. On the plus side, though, with the app currently being offered for free, you have nothing to lose by downloading it and giving it a try. In fact, iOnRoad has a useful online demo you can try out by downloading the app, then aiming your smartphone at a traffic video.
I’m an iOS guy myself, so I’m out of luck for now on this one (technically, I have a Nook Color that I occasionally run Honeycomb on, but it has no GPS or camera, so that’s not going to work so well). However, when the iOnRoad team brings out their version for the iPhone — which is supposed to be sometime this winter — you can bet I’m going to download it. With far fewer models to account for, it could be that the iOS version might be less prone to hardware quirks than the Android version. It isn’t going to replace the systems offered by Mercedes or Volvo, but if it runs solidly on your device, iOnRoad is a great addition to your car’s safety arsenal.