Car technology: it's a bit of a double-edged sword. With one edge, it can be harmful, creating a distraction to drivers. The 15-year-old Antuan had a hard-enough time operating a CD player while driving without running into everything in town. Young drivers today are expected to deal with browsing MP3 catalogs, navigation, touch screens, and incoming calls, and that's just the tip of the tech iceberg. And they must do this while resisting the siren call of texting, tweeting, and Facebook.
With its other edge, however, cabin technology can actually cut through distraction and make the vehicle safer for the driver and everyone on the road with him or her. Voice command, steering-wheel audio controls, hands-free calling, and driver aid systems (such as blind-spot monitoring) spring to mind as tech upgrades that help more than they harm. It's up to each of us as individual and responsible drivers to honestly assess ourselves and choose the level of tech that matches our abilities. For example, just because your car will let you input a destination while in motion doesn't make it a good idea.
With that in mind, I help two users this week to decide on just the right amount of car technology.
What is a good in-dash display for an aftermarket backup camera?
My son just got his learner's permit. I bought a used 1996 Honda Accord for his use. It's a nice car. I'm thinking of getting the OnStar FMV after reading your review and adding a backup camera (the dad in me can't stop thinking of safety). I wonder if a double-DIN replacement stereo's screen could accommodate the camera?
Yes, James. Plenty of in-dash receivers feature inputs for rearview cameras these days and most of those have reverse sensors that allow the camera to automatically take over the screen.
There are a few things that you might want to consider before you buy. The first is whether you want to upgrade to a double-DIN infotainment system or if it would be better to stick with a standalone camera system with a dedicated monitor. Your son may be a much better driver than I was at that age, but you should consider that with a new receiver comes many potential distractions for a new driver who should probably be focusing his attention out of the windshield at this point.
If you trust your son's ability and think the pros (access to navigation, safer hands-free calling, and so on) outweigh the massive con of potential distraction, then it's time to pick a camera and receiver combo.
You've given me no price or feature constraints for the receiver itself other than compatibility with a camera, and just about every new double-DIN DVD or navigation receiver that's debuted in the last 2-3 years offers a dedicated camera input. As long as you're not looking at a much older model, you should be good to go. Additionally, most of these manufacturers (Alpine, Clarion, Kenwood, and Pioneer, to name a few) offer their own rearview cameras. It's probably best to choose a camera of the same brand as your receiver for potentially easier installation, but there's no reason you can't mix and match.
What small cars offer the best Bluetooth integration?
I'm looking for a wagon or a small hybrid car, but the most important feature is the Bluetooth technology. I currently have an Audi A8L that has pretty good cabin tech, but how does the Ford Sync compare? In order of ease of voice dialing, what cars would have the top technology?
This is a tricky question, Linda. If you're looking at the cabin technology from an all-encompassing, holistic view like we do here at Car Tech, the current Audi infotainment system mostly outclasses anything that you'll find in Ford's small hatchback and current hybrid offerings, which are typically only available with pretty basic levels of Ford tech. The 2012 Focus and upcoming 2013 Focus Electric and 2013 Fusion Energi may change that with their next-generation MyFord Touch system, but until then Audi wins. We don't give those Editors' Choice Awards out to just any old car.
However, you specifically asked about the Bluetooth technology and voice command, areas where Ford Sync has always stood head and shoulders above the competition. At its core, the Ford Sync system that's standard on most of the automaker's vehicles automatically syncs your phone book to let you dial a caller by name ("Call Brian Tong") and get caller ID information while driving. It also syncs the music stored on a connected USB drive or iPod to let you access your tunes with little more than the sound of your voice ("Play artist: LL Cool J."). The voice commands are tremendously flexible and are among the most accurate that I've tested. Rarely do I end up repeating myself to Ford's system.
Additionally, there are other Ford Sync voice functions that vary depending on the specific Ford vehicle and your phone. Sync can read and compose text messages via voice with certain models of phone. AppLink-equipped vehicles can voice-command select smartphone apps and vehicles equipped with Sync Services gain an entire additional tier of voice command over navigation, traffic, weather, and destination data.
So, if you're looking for good Bluetooth hands-free calling and voice command, you could be very happy with a Ford Sync setup in something like a Ford Fiesta. If you're looking for navigation, connectivity, and cool features like automatic parallel parking, you'll have to jump up to the Focus. (Both are available as hatchbacks/wagons.)
Then again, there are few manufacturers that don't offer dial by name, address book sync, and caller ID (visual or audible) in their 2011 and 2012 Bluetooth systems -- I've tested only one make of vehicle this year that didn't: Mazda. So look for those features when you test-drive and you should be happy. Just make sure the voice recognition likes your accent, if you have one, before you buy.
CNET Roadside Assistance is a reader Q&A column where I, Car Tech editor Antuan Goodwin, answer your automotive and car technology-related questions. If you have a burning car technology question or just need something explained, send me an e-mail at cartech at cnet dot com. Put "Roadside Assistance" in the subject header and you might just see your question answered right here on CNET! You can also find me on Twitter and send me your questions there. Just follow @antgoo.