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On the road with iOnRoad collision warning app for Android

We hit the road with the iOnRoad collision warning app for Android to see how it performs.

iOnRoad app for Android
Antuan Goodwin/CNET
iOnRoad app for Android
iOnRoad takes advantage of your phone's camera and GPS antenna to warn you of danger ahead. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Recently, we took a look at an app for Android that could help save your life. iOnRoad is a driver safety app that uses a combination of GPS data and augmented reality to monitor the road ahead for potential collisions. By warning distracted drivers that they're too close to the vehicle ahead, iOnRoad could save money on low-speed fender benders or save lives when speeds get higher. I hit the road with this app to see how it performs.

After downloading and installing the beta version of the app (version 0.99.5), I used a suction-cup cradle provided by iOnRoad's developers to mount my Android phone, an HTC ThunderBolt, on my car's windshield. (Full disclosure: my Thunderbolt is rooted and running a pre-Alpha version of CyanogenMod 7.1.x, which may have affected my experience. However, iOnRoad does not require root access to operate.)

The app's interface includes a vertical bar on the left edge of a large video viewfinder that shows the driver an augmented-reality view of the road ahead of the vehicle. In the bar are a GPS status icon and three customizable shortcuts for phone, navigation, and music. In the settings menu, you can choose what apps are launched with these buttons, if--for example--multiple navigation apps are present on the device.

iOnRoad app for Android
The app can also be run in a less distracting icon view or shuffled to the background while you navigate or listen to music. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Because you may not want to spend your whole drive staring at a duplicate image of what you're already seeing out of the windshield, iOnRoad also has a simplified view that hides the viewfinder, enlarges the shortcut buttons, and adds an icon that shows the distance (in seconds or meters) between you and the car ahead. The app can be run in the background while navigating, hands-free calling, or listening to music and will notify via sound and a full-screen pop-up when an accident is imminent.

With the app running and my phone's camera aimed out the windshield of my test car (a 2012 Hyundai Accent SE), I hit the road to do some tailgating. After a few miles, I noticed that the iOnRoad app didn't seem to be detecting any vehicles, so I pulled over and fiddled with it for a bit. As it turned out, the fact that the car's hood showed up in the lower third of the app's viewfinder was preventing it from detecting the lane I was in and the distance between me and the car ahead.

With the help of a clever onscreen digital leveler that's part of the app's interface, I was able to get the camera adjusted to show only the road and the cars ahead and get rolling again. This time, I was pleased to see a green overlay outlining the lane that I was currently driving in and an icon indicating that the car ahead had been detected. Within that icon, either the distance, reaction time, or vehicle speed was displayed in numerical form.

If the time gap between myself and the car ahead dropped below 0.5 second, an audible chime sounded from the speaker. If you happen to be connected to your vehicle via Bluetooth or aux-input, you'll have the benefit of hearing the chime through the car's speakers. Additionally, a full-screen text alert filled the display with a bright yellow background. Continuing to close the gap caused an even more intense alarm to sound while the screen flashed red with a warning alert. I was too chicken to press the app beyond that point, but satisfied that iOnRoad did work. Confirming with the tried and true "one-Mississippi" method, I estimated that the app was also fairly accurate as to following distances as well. I'd like the ability to adjust the alerts to happen at even more conservative distances. As is, it seemed like I was already too close to the car ahead before iOnRoad began to notify me.

Now playing: Watch this: Hands on: iOnRoad app for Android

Satisfied that the app was working as advertised, I switched over to a navigation app to see how iOnRoad would do while monitoring from the background. The app displayed an ongoing notification and an icon in the status bar at the top of the screen. Audible notifications continued to sound as I approached the rear bumper of the vehicle ahead, but visual warnings ceased.

Because the system uses visual cues to detect the road ahead, I did run into a few situations where the system triggered false positives because it was fooled by an ominous-looking shadow or where it was unable to detect a vehicle ahead because the available light was doing odd things. Occasionally, cars that got too far ahead would drop out of detection range, somewhat limiting the app's ability to warn until the last minute. Additionally, the system's biggest Achilles' heel is that it doesn't work at night, because most phone cameras perform abysmally in low-light situations.

However, there are a few nice interface touches that I did like. For example, the app can be set to automatically launch when it detects that you're driving and automatically close when the accelerometer detects that the phone has been removed from its cradle. This, combined with the app's ability to run in the background, would make iOnRoad a completely invisible app until you needed it. Of course, as I've mentioned, the app is so fussy about the camera's positioning that you'll probably want to open the app and spend a few moments lining the camera up before you hit the road.

iOnRoad needs a bit more time to bake before I'd totally trust my life to it, and it's no replacement for diligently watching the road yourself. But I don't think that it's trying to be. What it is is a very cool beta app that shows a good deal of promise as an extra line of defense against avoidable fender benders. Even the best driver could occasionally benefit from an extra eye on the road.