Upgrade Your Old Car With the Latest Tech

Electronics Software Technology

I haven’t driven a car that’s younger than ten years in a very long time. While it’s been nice for my wallet, it’s been frustrating as I’ve watched the technology revolution that’s been happening behind the wheel. Thankfully, there are ways to get the technology that I only ever see in cars rolling off the lot today in my crusty old 2001 Toyota.

Gold is best (Image Credit: Anthony Karcz)
Gold is best (Image Credit: Anthony Karcz)

First up, I’ve been driving around with Automatic beeping at me from under my dash since I reviewed it last year. It’s been keeping track of where my car is when I park (though the latest version of iOS took the teeth out of that feature a bit), how well I’m driving, and how healthy my car is. Except when it wouldn’t. It’s reliant on a solid Bluetooth connnection and anyone who’s ever owned an iPhone can tell you, that’s far from a perfect solution.

Good thing, then, that the new Automatic Pro works over a cellular 3G network, rather than having to rely on another device for its connection to the mothership. In the month or so since I’ve upgraded to Automatic Pro, it’s been much more reliable than the previous generation Automatic. That alone is worth the upgrade. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting to the end of the week and going to log your business mileage, only to realize that the old dongle hadn’t been able to connect to your phone, so it didn’t track all your trips. The 3G network also allows you to track your Automatic Pro-adapted vehicle in real-time. Especially handy if you’re using the Pro to keep track of other drivers (like a certain teenager that will be getting this car after me).

Keep track of your mileage, where you parked, and a lot more with the Automatic App (Image Credit: Anthony Karcz)
Keep track of your mileage, where you parked, and a lot more with the Automatic App (Image Credit: Anthony Karcz)

What else you gain with the Pro over the previous version is a bit more mercurial.

You no longer have the real-time driving feedback, which is a plus for me, because the beeping whenever I slipped over 70 MPH on the highway got really old during my commute. Instead, there’s now a Drive Style portion of the new app (the Pro is not compatible with the previous app) that rates you on a sliding scale with the “average” driver based on City driving style, Highway driving style, braking, and acceleration (pro tip: smooth acceleration and braking makes the bars go green). I think it’s a much better gauge of my driving style than the hard brake/hard acceleration/over 70 MPH trifecta.

There are also a number of apps available that help you automatically track miles for ride sharing services and the like. Of course, there is still the excellent diagnostic code identification and reset feature (I really need to get that temperature sensor replaced at some point instead of resetting the light again and again). And there’s the parking tracker, which is much more reliable than Apple Maps for me (it often decides I’ve parked somewhere two counties over…or never left the house). If you have Alexa, you can use it to find out where your car is and if you’re ever in an accident, Automatic will automatically text contacts you set up in the app.

At $129, it’s quite a bit more than the previous version; but I think the improved reliability is worth it. The 3G moves Automatic from “nice to have” to “must have” for my old Avalon. If the price tag is holding you up, you can also get the newly launched Automatic Lite for $79. It’s similar to the first generation dongle, with Bluetooth connectivity instead of 3G. The Lite also reduces the feature set, eliminating parking tracking, live location updates, streaming and event apps, and Crash Alert. You can grab your Automatic Pro on Amazon the Automatic Lite can be found on the Automatic website.

Good looking and discreet (Image Credit: Pearl)
Good looking and discreet (Image Credit: Pearl)

But what about getting out into traffic in the first place?

One of things I could have done when I reviewed my Pioneer stereo was to install a third party rear-view camera. The number of wires that it would have required me to run was daunting and the professional installation would have cost more than the camera. Rather than take on the chore, I skipped it. But after driving around in a new Prius for a few days, I saw the utility of using a backup camera. Right around that time, Pearl contacted me to follow up on my announcement of their RearVision camera with a hands-on review.

Installation is ridiculously simple. The camera is self-contained in the license plate frame. It’s solar powered and transmits signal over WiFi and Bluetooth to your phone, so there are no holes to drill or wires to run. You take off your old plate frame and, using the special locking screw (which keeps thieves from pulling it apart with a standard screwdriver), replace it with the RearVision. It took me about fifteen minutes and that’s because I was stopping to take pictures of the process.

The license plate frame has two HD cameras that communicate with a car adapter that plugs into your OBD port (so if you’re also using an Automatic Pro, you’ll want to get a splitter). Download the app, hook it up to the adapter, and you’re ready to go. Place the car mount somewhere handy (Pearl gives you a nice, low-profile adhesive metal plate so that it can attach to the magnetic mount) and when it’s time to throw it into reverse, you launch the app. RearVision will show you a wide-angle shot as well as what’s immediately behind you. You can even pan around to check your corners – a feature I came to appreciate in tight grocery store parking lots with lots of pedestrians. If it detects motion, the app gives you a visual and audible warning. It also has night vision built in so that you can still see even when it’s dark. Once you start driving, the app will switch to offer you guidance and entertainment solutions from Maps, Waze, iTunes, and Spotify.

The app lets you know on what side it detects motion. (Image Credit: Pearl)
The app lets you know on what side it detects motion. (Image Credit: Pearl)

The RearVision camera worked seamlessly as expected (once I got it to connect to my iPhone 7, you might need to reboot after you hook up the dongle to Bluetooth). Other than the slight annoyance of having to manually launch the app when I wanted to use the camera, I didn’t have any issues with the operation. While I never quite got the “HD” video shown on their website the picture was clear and I never had a problem seeing what I needed to see. The ease of installation and over-the-air feature updates (via the app) make the RearVision an impressive alternative to those standard aftermarket cameras; but be prepared to pay. The Pearl RearVision will set you back $500 on Amazon. That’s a big premium, even factoring in installation costs. You can learn more about Pearl on their website.

So don’t despair that you’re stuck with last-gen tech on your old vehicle. With a quick shopping trip and a few minutes of plugging things in, you can give your car major upgrades.

Thanks to Automatic and Pearlauto for providing products for this review. Opinions are my own.

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekDad and GeekMom on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

2 thoughts on “Upgrade Your Old Car With the Latest Tech

  1. You might also want to check out MetroMile. It has most of, if not all, the same features as Automatic… but at extra low price of free.

    Yes, free.

    On top of that, using it also lets you get insurance based on you actually driving… it says it’ll save me about $400 per year. (Honestly tho, I haven’t looked into the insurance aspect of it. So I’m not sure how coverage works if you’re parked.)

  2. Sooooo… nevermind about the MetroMile.

    Apparently they stopped offering the free dongle at some point and you can only get it if you do the pay-by-mile insurance. From looking back in my email, it looks like the dongle stopped sending a signal for a while last year and they supposedly sent me a postage paid envelope to send it back… which I never got. I guess it started sending the signal again, because I kept getting the email alerts for street cleaning and my driving path for the month… and then archived those emails, never to be seen again.

    Reading this article reminded me that I never installed the app on my Note 4 when I got it, so I tried to… and was promptly told that my login wasn’t good. A few minutes of research later… alas, no more freebie service.

    I guess I’m in some sort of loophole where I’ll get the monthly driving path but can’t do anything with it.

    Anyways, hope I didn’t get anyone too excited about a free version of Automatic.

Comments are closed.