The cars of today feature many high-tech gadgets, from sophisticated self diagnostics to entertainment. We look at some of this clever on-board technology
The days when the only intelligence in a car was (arguably) found behind the steering wheel are long gone.
The average family saloon now contains dozens of microprocessors that control almost every aspect of its operation, and cars are also increasingly able to integrate with computers and electronic gadgets such as digital-audio players, satellite-navigation devices and smartphones.
Although cars don’t yet come with instructions on how to connect them to a home network, there are many ways for a motor to make friends with your PC and other gadgets – and that’s what this article is going to investigate.
We’ll show you how to use a PC to diagnose engine or other problems, for example, and look at how you can add features such as in-car Wifi at just a fraction of what a dealer would charge. And what’s more, you won’t need an oily rag.
Back in 1983, car-maker Austin (later MG) introduced a talking dashboard to its Maestro hatchback. At the time, this seemed incredibly futuristic, although the novelty soon wore off when it wouldn’t shut up.
These days, it’s more likely to be the driver talking to the car, courtesy of voice control, and electronic trip computers that display fuel consumption, speed, distance travelled and more are now found in even the most basic models.
The amount of computing power in cars has grown to the extent that the engine, steering, brakes, transmission, lights, heating, windows and even the seats and door mirrors are all part of the car’s electronic nervous system.
Costlier models go even further with digital dials and gauges, plus rain sensors, climate control and so on.
Ever-present and cheap technology means that in-car entertainment and information systems have gone from being luxuries to almost necessities, with the dashboard morphing into a multimedia hub capable of playing DVDs, CDs and MP3s.
The tattered old maps in the glove box have been replaced by integrated or portable satellite-navigation (sat-nav) devices, mobile phones can now connect to cars via Bluetooth for hands-free use, and iPod connectors (or ‘docks’) are commonplace.
Where are we?
Although sat-nav devices have become a lot more self-contained, with advanced models downloading traffic information and speed camera locations via a built-in mobile phone SIM card, most still need to be connected to a PC to get updates.
On some models it’s also possible to change the settings via the PC software, or synchronise music tracks and photos.
Navigating using a smartphone is increasingly popular, with free built-in apps on Android and Nokia smartphones, and numerous free equivalents available to download for Apple handsets. If you choose this option, connecting the phone to the car’s audio system is a good idea – and we will explain how later.
Even without a sat-nav, a PC is useful for planning trips. There are many excellent free online route-planning and traffic information services too, such as Tomtom’s HD Traffic service and Via Michelin, not forgetting the Highways Agency’s excellent site for real-time traffic updates.
One downside of all this technology is that even minor car problems may require specialist equipment (and hence more money) to fix.
The onboard computers, controlled by the electronic control unit (ECU), not only enable the car to run, but also store diagnostic information, allowing service garages to hook the car up to a computer for quick identification of faults.
Since 2001 for petrol-engined cars and 2004 for diesel models, it has been compulsory in Europe for all cars to include an onboard diagnostics system (called OBD-II), using a standard connector in the car.
Prior to this, many cars had proprietary diagnostic systems, but the standardisation not only makes life easier for garages, but also allows anyone with a PC and the right equipment to check what’s going on under the bonnet. Although mainly of interest to hobbyists, there are some useful things the average motorist can do.
It’s almost certain that at some stage you will have encountered the dreaded ‘check engine’ light, also called the ‘engine warning’ or ‘malfunction indicator’ light. This engine-shaped icon, usually orange, appears when there’s a problem that could affect the emissions-control systems.
This could be anything from a loose petrol cap (yes, really) to a broken oxygen sensor (remember the petrol fiasco of a few years ago, where additive overdoses by some supermarkets’ fuel pumps caused scores of these sensors to fail?). Either way, it normally requires a costly trip to the garage to find out what’s going on.
However, with a suitable cable, it’s possible to connect a Windows laptop to the car’s diagnostic socket and see what’s wrong. Although the necessary software and cable can be bought separately, a kit is better value.
The diagnostic socket in the car may take some time to find, although the regulations state that it must be within one metre of the steering wheel and accessible without using tools – in our picture, it’s under the steering wheel. The best bet is to check the car’s manual.
It’s not possible to damage your car by using the kits mentioned, as they only read information – and nothing apart from the status of the engine warning light can be altered.
Checking and resetting the light can ease your mind for a short trip, for example, but visit a garage as soon as practical to avoid potentially more expensive faults developing. And if the warning light is flashing, it indicates a serious problem and the car should not be driven.
Fiat has taken the idea of PC diagnostics one step further with its Ecodrive system, on the Fiat 500. This records data from a vehicle’s trips on to a USB memory key plugged into the dashboard, which can then be downloaded to a PC.
The Ecodrive software analyses driving habits and gives tips to improve economy. The kits mentioned above can also record data, but it’s very technical and not of much use to the average user.
Fun, fun, fun
Stepping back from the mechanics, in-car entertainment systems are increasingly being designed to fit in with digital lifestyles. Even the CD player is being phased out in favour of all-digital systems: Ford, for instance, is scrapping the multi-disc CD auto-changer option from its Focus models and replacing it with Ford Sync.
This is based on Microsoft software and can play music, video or photos from MP3 players, mobile phones, USB memory keys and SD cards.
It’s even possible to plug in a 3G broadband dongle and turn the car into a moving Wifi hotspot, allowing passengers to surf the web on the move. There’s full voice control of the connected devices and it can even read out text messages.
Fiat’s Blue & Me, also powered by Microsoft, is a similar system, connecting to phones, MP3 players and other storage devices via Bluetooth or USB. You can watch our video showing how it works by clicking here.
When offered as an option, such connectivity can be pricey. Citroen charges £243 for a USB adapter that links into the car’s radio and allows control of a portable digital-audio player via the radio or steering wheel controls.
Volkswagen and Audi cars have an optional Mobile Device Interface gadget costing about £200 that needs special £20 connecting cables for each type of device. At the most basic level, other cars have an auxiliary input (Aux In) jack socket to connect the headphone output of a phone or MP3 player.
How do these connections all work? In the simplest, connecting a portable music player’s headphone output to an Aux In socket merely directs the audio through the car’s speakers.
More advanced options, like those mentioned above, can control compatible devices via the car’s own playback controls – needless to say, this is by far the safest option.
In-car USB sockets are normally designed to accept only USB storage devices that contain music files. MP3 or Windows Media Audio (WMA) files are almost universally playable, but other formats may not be supported.
However, the USB ports are generally not meant for charging or powering devices, so a USB hard disk that contains music, for example, would need its own power supply (though we’ll discuss solutions to this presently).
Clearly, manufacturer-supplied in-car entertainment equipment isn’t cheap, but there are more affordable ways to get an MP3 player or phone to play music through the car’s radio. Add-on FM transmitter modules, such as the £15 Logic3 Universal FM Transmitter), are available for most portable devices and phones.
These broadcast music played on portable devices via FM radio, so you just tune the car radio into the appropriate frequency. This removes worry about what music formats the car stereo supports, but playback control must be managed via the device itself.
If your car’s radio does have an Aux In jack socket, Belkin’s AirCast Connect Aux (around £40), is a very handy device for connecting a phone, as it also acts as a USB charger and a device for making hands-free calls.
For older cars, replacement radios and CD players are one way to upgrade the available features – models with USB ports and an Aux In jacks cost around £100 (like the Clarion CZ201E, for example). And like many built-in units, such stereos support both audio and MP3 CDs.
While audio CDs hold just a handful of tracks offering a maximum playback time of around 80 minutes, over 100 MP3 tracks can be stored on a single CD. Newer radios can also display the track information and support playlist files.
For help on creating an MP3 CD, see our step-by-step guide below under the heading 'Burn MP3s to CD using Windows Media Player or iTunes'.
Computing on the move
We’ve already mentioned Ford’s upcoming Wifi hotspot capability, but owners of other makes can enjoy the same technology for in-car internet access (useful for laptop use when parked, say, or so the kids can play online games during long journeys – for more help keeping children occupied, see the section 'Are we there yet?' further on).
Peugeot-Citroen, for instance, offers Wifi On Board, though it costs a whopping £527. A much more reasonable £80 would buy a Solwise NET-3G-A10 battery-powered hotspot that accepts any 3G data SIM card. Three’s Mifi is the same idea, and costs from £16 on contract or £72 with a 3GB pay-as-you-go (PAYG) SIM.
A cheaper way to share internet access on the move if you have a Windows 7 notebook is to get a free PAYG 3G broadband USB dongle from T-Mobile, top it up, then turn the notebook into a Wifi hotspot using the free Connectify software.
Power to the people
Of course, all these gadgets need electricity – and some need mains power. For devices that can be charged via USB, a simple adapter such as the £25 Black & Decker USB Power Inverter is ideal. For mains-powered devices, a 230V model such as the £30 Ring 150W Can Inverter is suitable – enough to power smaller devices, like games consoles and laptops.
More powerful models are available, but they can put a big strain on the car’s electrical system, as described below.
Watch that battery
Car batteries and alternators are designed to handle the electrical demands of modern cars, but all the extra gadgets, such as DVD players, smartphones and sat-navs, can put a lot of extra strain on the car’s system.
Some breakdown services have special conditions relating to flat batteries, so always remember to unplug any electronic items before leaving the car. Don’t leave them charging with the engine off or, if they can’t be easily unplugged, double-check that they have been completely turned off – especially power-hungry items like mini-refrigerators.
Another simple kindness for the electrical system is to wait until the engine is started before reconnecting any devices.
Are we there yet?
Keeping children entertained on long journeys can now be a little easier (but sadly not cheaper) with the help of gadgets. Portable DVD players with seat-back mounting kits can be bought from around £80, and twin-packs are often good value.
Portable digital TVs might sound attractive, but reliable reception on the move is nigh on impossible. With a power inverter, a mains-powered games console could be hooked up to portable DVD player’s screen, but we would suggest that handheld consoles, smartphones or MP3 players are a much more practical solution.
Burn MP3s to CD using Windows Media Player or iTunes
1 In WMP 11 or 12, press Alt and T, then choose Options followed by Burn. To stop folders being created (some CD players don’t support these), remove the tick from the ‘Use media information to arrange files in folders on the disc’ box. Choose the playlist type (M3U for MP3s, WPL for WMA files) from the dropdown menu in the Data Lists section.
2 Insert a blank CD, then click the Burn tab. In version 11, click the small arrow on the tab and choose ‘Data CD’. In version 12, click the small box to the right of ‘Clear list’ and choose ‘Data CD or DVD’. Drag and drop albums, tracks or playlists into the ‘Drag items here’ area. Click ‘Start burn’ when ready.
3 In iTunes, create a new playlist (press Control and N), then drag all the desired tracks into it. Insert a blank CD, then right-click on the name of the playlist in the left pane and choose ‘Burn playlist to disc’. Select the ‘MP3 CD’ radio button and click Burn. Note that iTunes does not create folders or playlists on the disc.
Hit the road
Not everyone wants to turn their car into a mobile-computing centre but, as we’ve shown, it’s easy to harness the power of your PC and other gadgets to add a few luxuries without breaking the bank.
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