Car tech lessons learned on a road trip

The 2011 Scion tC got us and our tech to San Diego and back.

(Credit:Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

Recently, I took a road trip from San Francisco, Calif., to San Diego and back. yes, I was headed to Comic-Con 2011 and yes, I had a blast while I was there, but ask any realcar lover and they’ll tell you that the best part of any road trip is the getting there part. and if you’re a technophile like I am, the getting there will usually include a few tech toys.

Partially by design and partially by accident, I used a different tech loadout for the two legs of the trip. Getting there, I used a portable navigation device and listened to the FM radio, and on the way back, I slapped my smartphone on the dashboard and used navigation and media player apps. so how did these two generations of tech compare?

The wheels: 2011 Scion tC

Perhaps a sporty coupe wasn't the best choice for a 1,200-plus mile road trip.

(Credit:Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

The keys to a new 2011 Scion tC found their way into my hand at the beginning of the trip–the very same tC that had graced the CNET garage just a few short months earlier. I’d say that the tC was chosen for its good looks and reasonable fuel economy–both of which are true–but the real reasons I said yes to the tC was because I didn’t get to spend much time with the coupe during its visit and, after rethinking my stance on the Scion xB, I wanted to give it a second shot. That the tC features a relatively basic level of cabin tech was a bonus, as I planned on adding my own tech anyway.

So how did the tC stack up after more than 1,200 miles of driving? Not bad actually.

The vast majority of my driving was straight line, highway cruising. Fortunately, this is where the tC’s 2.5-liter engine is most at home, happily humming the miles away with remarkably little drama. The EPA estimates the manual shifting tC’s highway fuel economy at 31 mpg and at the end of our 1,229 mile week–which included two nearly 2 hour slogs through Los Angeles rush hour traffic–we’d averaged 27.6 mpg. of course, a Hyundai Elantra’s EPA estimated 40 mpg highway would likely be more efficient for a road trip, but for off-ramp 0-60 runs, the more powerful tC was much more fun.

However, there are cons related with making a road trip in a car that makes sporty pretenses. for example, the firmer-than-your-average-Toyota suspension tuning and 17-inch wheel and low profile tire combo transmitted a good deal of road noise into the tC’s cabin which made it difficult to enjoy the stereo system and transformed conversations into shouting matches when the road surface got rough. as we all know, good conversation with your trip mates is one of the hallmarks of a memorable road trip.

Getting there…

For the trip down, I loaded up the tC’s hatchback with luggage and its dashboard with the TomTom GO 2535 M Live. I chose the GO 2535 for two reasons. Firstly, I like to take a portable navigation device (or at least an app that stores local maps) on road trips because I don’t want to get caught out of my coverage area without maps. second, based on my departure time, I’d be hitting Los Angeles at the peak of rush hour during a weekday and I wanted to see just how accurate and useful TomTom HD Traffic service would be in the worst possible congestion situation I’d likely be able to test for a while.

For the bulk of the trip, which included a 415 mile straight shot down California’s Interstate 5, the TomTom didn’t really break a sweat. Occasionally, we’d use a POI search to find a convenience store or spot to eat along our chosen route, but for the most part, the GPS device just hung silently from the windshield, constantly updating our estimated time of arrival and counting down the miles.

Seventy minutes of congestion stood between us and our destination.

(Credit:Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

However, as we approached the boundaries of Los Angeles’ urban sprawl, we noticed that our estimated time of arrival had begun to climb rather quickly. A quick glance at the traffic meter on the right edge of the TomTom GO 2535 Live’s maps screen showed an estimated traffic delay of more than 70 minutes. while taking a driving break to stretch and regroup, I took a look at the traffic map for the LA area and found it to be a tangled web of stopped cars. any attempts to go around the traffic would have resulted in a longer detour than the traffic delay, so into the jam we went, resigned to our fate. however, about 20 minutes into the 70-minute delay, a message popped up on the TomTom’s interface, informing us that the device had found an alternate route that could save us 30 minutes. Thrilled, we tapped the virtual button and were lead off of the highway and onto surface roads. when we’d finally popped back onto the highway on the other side of the worst of the traffic, I did a quick calculation and surmised that (factoring traffic lights and surface traffic) we’d only saved about 15 minutes overall, but we were grateful for small favors and continued onward.

Without this auxiliary cable, we were stuck listening to hours of FM radio.

(Credit:Antuan Goodwin/CNET)

I’d planned to listen to the media stored on myAndroid phone during the 8-plus hour trip, but I’d forgotten to bring along an auxiliary audio patch cable. Perhaps, it’s because I’m just spoiled by all of the cars that we’ve tested with that feature Bluetooth audio streaming and didn’t think about something as simple as a cable. Or perhaps the gods of music were conspiring against me, because although the tC offered a standard USB port for digital media and playback, that port was not compatible with Android phones; not one of us thought to bring a USB stick drive; and the onlyiPhone in the car was curiously devoid of music. and so we were stuck listening to FM radio for the trip down. The moral of the story: double-check your tech.

Now, many will argue that terrestrial radio is the best and most cost-effective music discovery service around, and I won’t argue against that point. over the course of the trip, I traveled through four or five radio markets, listened to about a dozen stations, and–with the help of music identification apps such as Shazam and Soundhound–was introduced to at least one band that I now count among my favorites. however, terrestrial radio is also known to be quite repetitive, an issue that is multiplied on a road trip where you spend hours passing through different regions with similarly programmed stations. as we pulled into our hotel for the night, I couldn’t help but think, “If I hear one more Katy Perry song today, I will drive this car into the ocean!”

…and back again.

For the return trip, I’d managed to procure what had to have been the world’s most expensive 3.5mm patch cable from a gas station, so I was finally able to get my Android phone connected to the tC’s stereo. Coincidentally, I’d also just gotten a Spotify invite, so I figured that while I was in a spending mood, I’d cough up the $9.99 to get access to the Premium service level and the mobile app. My first experience with the mobile app was from behind the wheel of a car speeding up San Diego’s I-805, where I learned two very important things. Firstly, the Spotify mobile app’s interface is–as media player apps go–pretty complicated. Searching requires far too many screen taps (even using voice for the input), the now playing screen slides around in a drawer of its own, and the play queue is hidden in a menu. It’s far from the ideal in-car interface, so you’ll want to take some time and set up your playlists before you hit the road. Beyond the simple interface issues, I liked being able to call up almost any song that I or my car mates wanted and the Spotify’s caching was sufficient enough that we never experienced a drop in playback, even as our wireless signal came and went in spotty areas.

Of course, there are plenty of other mobile apps that a smartphone user could make use of on the road. Check out the video below to get a peek at the tip of that iceberg.

Must-have apps for your next road trip

Since I was already using my phone for music and didn’t want to suction cup two devices to my windshield, I decided to use a navigation app to get myself home. I quickly fired up Google Maps by speaking my home address into Android’s Voice Search function and we were on our way.

At first, all was well and the sailing was smooth, but as we passed through LA for the second time, stop-and-go traffic again raised its ugly head. Google Maps’ traffic layer showed me that Interstate 5 was all but gridlocked all of the way through the city, but the app didn’t make any attempts to route me around the congestion. after almost an hour of averaging about 10mph, I called my (admittedly) limited local knowledge into action and decided that I’d pop off of the 5 and onto the less congested CA-101. The logic was that I’d get around the bulk of the traffic, be able to show my trip mates the Hollywood sign, and take the 405 back to the 5 outside of LA to head home. It was a solid plan…or so I thought.

I’m not sure whether to blame myself, the app, or the phone for what happened, but somewhere along the way, the Google Maps app–which was running in the background behind Spotify–had decided that it’d had enough and crashed. I was too busy dodging dodgy LA drivers and chatting with my mates and didn’t realize that I wasn’t getting voice prompts until we were in Thousand Oaks (almost half an hour off of our expected route). of course, this meant that it took us half an hour to get back on track, negating the savings of my clever alternate route and actually putting us behind schedule.

What did I learn?

First, I learned to double-check the tech. this may not be as big of an issue for those of you who don’t find yourself in a different car every week, but you should always double- and triple-check that you’ve got everything you need to keep your tech working. you don’t want to end up spending $20-30 on a charger or aux cable when you don’t have to. Along those same lines, I learned that you should definitely take some time to familiarize yourself with an app’s interface before hitting the road with it.

Next, I learned that as good and cost-effective as navigation apps such as Google Maps can be, they’re only good when they’re working. I learned that a good navigation device with a traffic service that integrates into the routing engine can save a few minutes in a traffic jam. I also learned that, as good as my sense of direction is, it’s only as good as the extent of my local knowledge and my attention span.

Most importantly, I learned that there are pros and cons to both the more stable old-school hardware and the more dynamic new school of app-based cabin tech methodologies. for admittedly less than scientific comparison, the portable navigation device won out, but only just barely. when you consider the price difference between the apps and the dedicated hardware, we’re thinking that a rematch could go either way.

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