Tech updates in the tow vehicle

Airstreamers love tech. That’s a big change from a decade ago, when most Airstreamers were repelled by technology.  When we got into it in 2003 most of the Airstreamers we met didn’t own cell phones (“too expensive,” they said) and the very few who carried computers were considered radical pioneers.

How times have changed.  Airstream owners today consider their mobile phones as essential as oxygen, and most that we meet are carrying around a laptop or two, a tablet, and either a wifi range extender or a cellular hotspot.

But why stop in the Airstream?  It’s fun to load up the tow vehicle with cool tech, even after the manufacturer has already outfitting the dash with an array of colorful displays, trip computers, and a backup camera.

There’s a legitimate need for some good toys technological essentials in the cockpit. Obviously any Airstream needs a brake controller, but that’s pretty ho-hum.  Our Tekonsha Prodigy purchased in 2005 still serves us very well today, so it’s the only thing we haven’t updated recently. This deprives me of the opportunity to upgrade to the latest and flashiest, but on balance I am pleased that it has proven to be such a durable piece of equipment.  I never have to think about it, it doesn’t need software updates, and it just works 100% of the time. Silicon Valley, pay attention.

In prior blogs and one video I have documented some of the tech gadgetry we use while towing.  The IngoVision Airstream backup cam is still with us, although I don’t think Ingo is still selling them. If you want a backup cam, there are some good ones on the market at present. The electrical mod from Mid-City Electronics that makes the image appear on the built-in Mercedes display screen is still working just fine too.  The only change in this system was back in May 2013 when I relocated the video camera to the upper dome (instead of down low on the rear bumper) to get a better view.

The first two Garmin GPSs that we used (“Garminita” and “Garminita II”) gradually got flaky and was replaced by “Garmondo”, who also became unreliable after a few years, and so we are now on our fourth one. I would normally not have much respect for a device that has such a short life space (about three years per unit). However, the GPS suffers excruciating heat while sitting on the dashboard, gets dropped to the floor regularly, and is in operation for many hours each year.

Flaking out periodically isn’t ideal but I find that every time we get a new one, its capabilities are significantly better and so ultimately our convenience increases. This one provides lane guidance (really useful when towing a trailer in traffic), traffic reports, has lifetime map updates, and is a lot faster when searching. Plus the screen is big and the touchscreen works much better. I figure the $200-300 that it costs to upgrade every three years is just part of my fixed cost of being a frequent traveler. But Garmin #4 will not get a pet name. Real pets live longer.

Transcend dashcam installed outside
This “eye” will be watching for Stupid Driver Tricks

The latest addition to the dash is a Transcend DrivePro 200 Car Video Recorder. In short, a dashcam. Dashcams are a favorite with truck drivers, eastern Europeans (remember the great meteorite videos from Russia in Feb 2013?), YouTubers, and paranoiacs. I don’t think I fall into any of those categories, but I do see a lot of crazy stuff on the roads every time we cross the country, and now I’ll be able to document some of it for you.

The camera cost about $125. Installation added about $85, since I paid a local car electronics place to remove a bunch of the interior panels and run the power cord discreetly down to a hidden source. This was more of a hassle than it should have been, because Mercedes wired the car to keep all of the 12 volt power outlets “hot” even when the car is turned off. There’s only one outlet in the GL that switches off with the engine, and that’s the center cigarette lighter outlet. The poor guys at the local electronics shop discovered this the hard way.

Transcend dashcam installed insideIf you install one of these on your tow vehicle, I recommend thinking for a while before you finally stick it to the windshield glass. You want a spot where it can get a good view of everything (which means near the top and center of the dash if possible), but not in the way of the driver’s field of view, where you can get to the controls, and not where it will interfere with other things like the rearview mirror or toll transponders. It took two tries before I got the right spot for this one.

Speaking of toll transponders, we carry two of them.  One is a Florida Sunpass, and the other is EZ-Pass which works in a bunch of eastern states. The Sunpass is a permanently adhered windshield sticker that has the advantage of being postage-stamp sized and battery-free. The EZ-Pass is a clunky white box that takes up so much space I only put it up when needed.

If we had a transponder for every state that we drive through we’d have no room to see out the windshield at all, so we’ve resisted the temptation to get an Oklahoma PikePass, a Kansas K-Tag, a California FasTrak, a Washington Good To Go! pass, a Texas TxTag, North Carolina QuickPass, Georgia PeachPass, etc.  I am hoping that someday the states will manage to make them all interoperable. Not holding my breath on that, though.

We used to carry a Doran tire pressure monitor, but for various reasons I got rid of that one and switched to another made by Truck Systems Technologies.  This was after going through a couple of other brands and realizing what total junk they were. I like the TST unit so much that we are now carrying it in the Airstream Life Store—and if I may interject a brief commercial here, our price is pretty good so please buy one from us!

The other piece of tech that has been invaluable lately is my iPhone (or sometimes, the family iPad). Apps on smart devices like these are revolutionizing the way we travel. I have a slide deck that I keep updated with the latest apps that we find useful while traveling, and I present it occasionally at Aluma-events.  The presentation is always a hit, because everyone wants to know what works in real-world travel situations. It’s much better to talk to a fellow Airstreamer than to dig through the mostly-useless reviews in the App Store.

I keep 8 to 10 apps on my phone for road travel, and would prefer fewer. It’s more efficient to have a few selected and really capable apps than to have dozens that each have some niche functionality. (If you want to know my current list, come to Alumapalooza in Jackson Center in May. We’ll keep online registration open until May 15, and after that you can register on site but it will cost $30/site more.) So if you are looking for apps, I suggest you be ruthless and delete those that you don’t find very helpful.

Perhaps I’m getting unimaginative, but I’m so happy with the tech I have that it’s hard to guess what’s coming down the technology pipeline that I would really find useful. Still, it’s undeniable that more is coming. That’s the fun thing about it; there are millions of brilliant minds working on the “next big thing” in software and hardware, and as travelers we get the benefit of that.

I don’t know what’s next, but I know this: I’ll probably be evaluating it. Look for my reviews in upcoming issues of Outside Interests news (subscribe via email for free; no obligation). Next week will mark the first official one: my full review of the Xantrex TrueCharge 2. I’ll also post a review of the Transcend dashcam in Outside Interests after I drive 2,000 miles with it up to Ohio this May.


  1. Terry says

    Rich, we have more GPS devices than we have vehicles, now that most smart phones and tablets have that built-in functionality. When our dedicated GPS equipment bites the dust this time around, we’ll probably not replace it, but simply use the navigation app included in the phones we carry.

  2. Koos and Stefan says

    Hi Rich! We love this! You know we are tweakers and this is great info. Thanks!