8 ways to transform your current ride into a cutting-edge tech car

We round up eight driver aid and infotainment technologies of today and tomorrow that can be added the ride that you already own.

Garmin HUD
Garmin's Head-Up Display adds a cool, transparent HUD to your car's dashboard. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Today's cars are pretty advanced collections of technologies. They can help you to drive more safely, protect you and your passengers, and keep everyone entertained along the way. Pretty soon, they'll be able to drive themselves.

But you may not be in the market for a new car. Just because you already have a car doesn't mean that you can't experience the latest car tech. With that in mind we've rounded up eight tech upgrades that you can add to an older ride.

Head-up display

The Garmin HUD+ ($179) allows drivers to project turn-by-turn directions onto the windshield of their car. Rather than taking eyes off of the road to glance at a smartphone, vehicle speed, navigation data, and lane guidance instructions appear directly in the line of sight.

The Garmin unit uses a bright monochrome display, pairs with your phone via Bluetooth, and, so far, can only receive its information from the Navigon or Garmin HUD branded navigation apps -- neither of which is a favorite of mine. So far, the Garmin HUD is the best aftermarket head-up display that I've tested.

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The full-color Navdy HUD will integrate voice and gesture commands. Navdy

Drivers looking for a more fully featured aftermarket head-up display should keep their eyes peeled for the Android-powered Navdy, which hits the marketplace in early 2015. This system uses a full-color head up display that integrates hands-free calling controls, voice controlled messaging, and gesture commands. We're pretty excited about the possibilities.

Driver aid systems

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The Mobileye driver aid hardware keeps an unblinking eye on the road ahead. Mobileye/Kfir Ziv

Many modern vehicles are beginning to integrate camera- and radar-based systems that monitor the road ahead for obstructions, watch lane markers, and more. Mobileye is the company that, in many cases, provides that technology to the automakers and it's got a version that you can add onto most any car: the Mobileye 560 Collision Avoidance System.

The camera-based system keeps an unblinking eye on the road ahead, letting you know if you're following too closely and sounding an audible alert over your car's speakers if a collision is imminent or a pedestrian steps unexpectedly in front of the car. It adds a lane departure alert when you accidentally drift over the lane markers without signaling. The 560 can even read the speed signs along the road to let you know when you're above the limit and automatically dim your high-beam headlights to prevent dazzling oncoming traffic at night.

The Mobileye 560 isn't cheap at $849 and requires a professional installation, but it adds a great deal of peace of mind for the trouble. (We tested an earlier version of Mobileye's technology and found it pricey, yet effective.) Penny-pinchers can try out a much more limited level of forward collision alert with the iOnRoad app for Android and iOS devices, which uses your smartphone's camera to estimate following distance to the car ahead and alert to potential collisions. However, it's nowhere near as foolproof, feature rich, or stable as the standalone hardware. It costs $4.99 in the US, £2.99 in the UK, and AU$6.49 Down Under.

Cloud-powered control

Aftermarket car alarms are old hat for car technology enthusiasts, but Viper has something new up its sleeve. The modular Viper SmartStart system bundles Internet connectivity (subscription required) with the brand's trusted line of car alarms, allowing drivers to monitor and control their car via a smartphone app.

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With the Viper SmartStart system, your smartphone becomes the key to entering and monitoring your car. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

With a tap of an app, users can remotely lock and unlock doors and trunk, arm and disarm their alarm, or remotely start the car. Premium users can also monitor the live GPS position of their ride and get mobile alerts when the vehicle enters or exits a GPS-marked zone or exceeds a preset speed.

Drivers who are wary of paying an annual subscription can instead add the Viper VSK100 SmartKey Bluetooth Module ($129) to any SmartStart compatible Viper alarm to enable automatic remote alarm disarming and door unlock via the SmartStart app from within Bluetooth range -- no subscription required.

Concierge and emergency services

OK, so maybe OnStar isn't "cutting-edge," but it is a great setup for drivers who are uncomfortable using their smartphone for navigation. At the touch of its blue button, OnStar puts you in contact with a real person who can help search for destinations and send turn-by-turn directions to your car. Thanks to the OnStar FMV ($75) you can add this service to almost any car.

The aftermarket rearview mirror replaces the one in your car and houses the cellular antenna that allows you to press a button and ask OnStar's concierge for the nearest gas station or a nice place to eat nearby. In addition to directions, the OnStar subscription ($199-$299 per year) also offers automatic crash response, push-button emergency services, and even a few minutes of hands-free calling for those times when you've forgotten to bring your cell phone.

OnStar FMV
Just push the blue button and the OnStar FMV puts you into contact with a concierge and turn-by-turn navigation. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Fuel economy and driving monitor

We've already spoken at length about what makes the Automatic Smart Driving Monitor ($100) great. The hardware plugs into your car's OBD-II diagnostics port and allows a companion app to analyze your driving habits to help you to drive more efficiently. The system also displays "Check Engine" trouble codes and explains what's wrong with your ride. Finally, it adds emergency crash response on top of its driving monitor functions.

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Automatic combines an OBD reader with a smartphone app to give motorists feedback on their driving habits. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Automatic is about as plug and play as driving diagnostics gets. However, Automatic isn't the only kid on this block. Dash, for example, is a great free app for Android and iOS that will work with any $10 Bluetooth OBD-II data logger to deliver similar functionality. There are dozens of OBD-II devices that pair with hundreds of apps, any of which can grant insight into how you can be a better driver and better maintain your ride.

Upgraded infotainment and apps

When most of us talk about upgrading our car tech, what we're talking about infotainment. This is where the Pioneer AVIC-8000NEX ($1,400/£1,940) comes into play. With its onboard GPS navigation software, Bluetooth connectivity, capacitive touch display, and HD radio tuning, the 8000NEX is a pretty sharp choice for an all-in-one dashboard tech upgrade, but adding an iPhone or Android smartphone that supports its AppRadio Mode, MirrorLink, or Siri Eyes-Free pushes this receiver to the cutting edge.

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The Pioneer NEX series will see an upgrade to support Apple CarPlay. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Pioneer's not done honing the AVIC-8000NEX. Later this summer, it and the rest of Pioneer's NEX lineup will all get a firmware update that grants them compatibility with Apple CarPlay connectivity.

Pioneer won't be the only one; Alpine will be adding CarPlay compatible receivers to its lineup in the near future and both brands are listed as partners in the Open Automotive Alliance behind the upcoming Android Auto app mirroring tech.

Rearview camera

By 2018, a rearview camera will be required on all new cars sold in the United States. However, you can jump ahead and add one to the car that you already own.

Magellan Wireless Back-Up Camera
You can add a rear camera system to almost any car in an afternoon. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Alpine, Pioneer, and Sony all offer cameras to compliment their in-dash multimedia receivers, but you needn't be limited. Magellan's Wireless Backup Camera ($129) is designed to work with the brand's line of large GPS navigators, but should work just as well with any multimedia receiver that has a dedicated A/V input for a rear camera and there are hundreds of inexpensive, generic cameras all over the internet marketplace that will work just as well. And if you don't want to replace your car's stereo, you can also add a small auxiliary display to the dashboard or your windshield mirror to accept the camera's feed.

Looking forward, it won't be long until we start seeing around-view monitors, like those used on Nissan's crossovers and SUVs, becoming more commonplace in the aftermarket.

Autonomous driving

The cars of the future will be able to drive themselves, taking control of the steering and throttle while you kick back and enjoy the ride. The Cruise RP-1, an extremely early version of this technology, promises to allow drivers to transform the car they already have into a self-driver by adding radar and camera sensors to an array that sits atop the vehicle's roof and integrates into the electric power steering, throttle, and brake systems.

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In the future, you may be able to upgrade your current car to drive autonomously. Cruise

To get started, you'll first need an Audi, because Cruise is only compatible with 2012 or later Audi A4 or S4 models. Eventually, it hopes to open up to other models. Next, you'll need about $10,000 -- no, that's not a typo -- and Cruise is only accepting 50 drivers into its "Founders Club" of fully prepaid preorders. Beyond that, drivers can put down $1,000 to hold their place in line. Finally, you'll need to wait. Cruise doesn't estimate that the RP-1 will hit the road until 2015.

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The Cruise RP-1 sensor array sits atop the roof, while the processors are located in the trunk. Cruise

When it gets here, the 50 early adopters will be able to hit a single "Cruise" button to give control, maintaining its position in the lane by steering and keeping a safe following distance with other cars using the throttle and brakes. At any time, the driver can regain control by grabbing the wheel. However, the Cruise RP-1 won't be truly autonomous; it won't be able to follow turn-by-turn directions, just maintain its course. Think of it more like highway autopilot.

 

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