The last tour of the GL?

After plodding through the mushy wet snow for a couple of days it was a welcome change to have the sun come out in Fort Collins and watch it all melt. The two pictures below were taken two days apart:

Fort Collins Airstream slushFort Collins Airstream campsite sun

And that changed the mood of the entire rally. No longer was everyone hunkered down inside with the furnace blowing, peering out through fogged windows in the hope of seeing sunshine. Suddenly people were outside, walking around and talking to their fellow rally-goers. Emma and I went for rides, Eleanor and I went for walks. It all turned out very nicely.

Saturday night the weather was so fine that people were grilling outdoors and I offered test rides to anyone who wanted to try our electric kick scooter. About ten people hopped on and zipped away—and they all came back with a big smile.  This guy even popped a wheelie.

Fort Collins scooter wheelie

Fort Collins was nearly our halfway point to Alumapalooza, which meant we still had 1,100 miles to go.  After the rally there was no avoiding that we were going to make our 31st crossing of the American Great Plains, so we braced ourselves and began to log some miles.

Kansas center of USATo mix things up we always look for a new route. I think we’ve driven every possible major route through the center of the continent but there was a bit of northwestern Kansas we hadn’t seen before so we headed that way. It’s not much different from other parts of Kansas but at least it was new.

The nice thing about taking the quieter roads is that there’s more variety and occasionally an under-appreciated state park in which to spend the night. This time it was Prairie Dog State Park.

A single night in a state park isn’t enough time to get to know it, but clearly it’s a jewel judging by the number of locals who had staked out spots with their RVs and fishing boats.  The park has a nice small lake stocked with fish. (There’s also lots of space for unicycle riders.)

Prairie Dog SP Emma

Rains came in the evening, and despite my efforts to cover the delicate rear computer in the GL, a few drops of water got in again. I woke up at 3 a.m. to see the taillights glowing (a clear sign that the computer was freaking out). Computers and water don’t mix.

I dried it off and covered the computer better but the damage was done: multiple error messages in the console, and the brake controller was ON all the time. That’s because the computer was telling the brake controller that the brakes were applied when they weren’t.  This meant the trailer couldn’t be towed. And of course the nearest Mercedes dealer was 3.5 hours away.

At noon we were still without functioning brakes and we had to leave the campsite, so I disconnected the 7-way cord to the trailer and towed gingerly to another part of the park without brakes or taillights. I pulled fuses in hopes of forcing a reset, to no avail. Finally, on the phone Colin Hyde came up with a temporary solution: cut the wire to the brake controller that receives the braking signal.

I did that and reconnected the 7-way cable. Now we had taillights and manually-operated brakes, so we could proceed. I just had to keep a hand on the manual brake lever and coordinate braking the trailer by hand with braking the car with my foot. It’s not as hard as you might think.

A few hours later I reconnected the cut wire and found the computer had returned to normal. We were back in good operating condition from that point onward. But I wonder how long the circuitry will continue to work, now that it has gotten wet twice. (I also rigged up an elaborate multi-layer water protection system, in the hopes of preventing a third dousing. I can’t stop the actual leak but I have fixed things so any water that gets in will be shunted far away from the computer.)

The rest of the drive was uneventful and uninteresting. Suffice to say we survived KS, MO, IL, and IN without extreme weather or dramatic failures and pulled into Jackson Center OH—center of the Airstream universe—by Wednesday evening. We’re set up at the Terra Port and getting ready for Alumapalooza 8.

I am eyeing a replacement vehicle. The GL’s recent crises involving the water leaks, along with numerous other age-related problems, are starting to drive my repair costs to an unacceptable level.

We’re at eight years and 134,000 miles with this tow vehicle, which is less than I had hoped for when I bought it, but still a respectable amount of use. The choice of what might replace the GL is difficult since our criteria are complex, but I hope to make a decision in the next few weeks: keep or replace, and replace with what?  I’ll talk about that in more detail in another blog.

Why I became a DIY mechanic

We’ve had our Mercedes GL320 for nearly eight years now, and it has accumulated about 130,000 miles to date. For the most part it has been a good choice for us but as it ages I am faced with a harsh decision.  That decision is whether to continue paying Mercedes repair shops exorbitant amounts of money to keep the GL320 on the road, or to start the ownership process over again with something new.

Anza Borrego GL 2014-01

I’m not really crazy about the idea of buying a new tow vehicle. The GL is in excellent shape overall (thanks to lots of new parts and meticulous maintenance), and let’s face it, tow vehicles are expensive.

But neither am I crazy about our tours of America becoming tours of Mercedes service centers.  This summer we were forced to visit dealership service centers in Pennsylvania, Washington, Oregon, and California, and that’s a reminder to me that the trusty steed is no longer a youngster.

For now I’m choosing a third option: Do-It-Yourself (DIY). It’s impractical for me to do large repairs on the road but while we are parked at home base over the winter I have the opportunity to do routine maintenance and certain repairs in the driveway. The Mercedes “Service B” interval costs about $500-700 when done at a dealership; last winter I did it myself for about $150.  In October I replaced the rear brakes for about $220 in parts and supplies, which was about 1/3 what the dealer would charge.

Not only is DIY a big savings but it is an interesting opportunity for personal growth. For most of my life I would have described myself as “not mechanically inclined.” That was my father’s special ability, not mine. But entering the world of Airstreaming gradually forced me to pay attention to how things worked, and ask questions, and acquire tools & skills.

It has been frustrating at times. There have been many times when I would never have persevered without the support and advice of friends like Nick, Colin, Brett, and Super Terry. When a vital part slipped from my fingers and disappeared, when I accidentally cross-threaded a bolt in the engine block, when I mis-wired something and blew up part of a circuit board, when the wheels literally came off the Airstream … all those times when it seemed there was absolutely no hope and I was about to drown in self-doubt or confusion, my friends have been there to help me get perspective.

One of the places where I buy parts, Mercedessource.com, provides a single Lemonhead candy in many of their parts kits. This is so you can “seek the wisdom of the Lemonhead” when things get difficult. In other words, step away from the problem for a while. In those moments of frustration when things seem bleakest it’s extraordinarily helpful to simply stop working and let your emotional chemicals subside. I usually go seek advice from friends or reliable documentation for a while. Eventually the path forward becomes clear—and the problem that seemed so utterly impossible before gets resolved.

Over the past ten years this learning process has been so empowering for me that it has literally changed my life. I’m still cautious about tackling new mechanical or electrical things (because the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know) but the knowledge and confidence I have gained has led me to things like:

I look back on those accomplishments with amazement, because ten years ago I would never have seen myself doing any of those things. If you’re thinking the same about yourself, well, don’t sell yourself short.  You can learn anything.

And it feels great to have more self-sufficiency.  Most of us are constant victims of our modern “disposable” consumer products system.  The system says that more durable items (appliances, vehicles) must be serviced only by a qualified technician, and like our semi-broken healthcare system, you aren’t allowed to question the cost.

Well, that’s baloney. Sure, I can’t DIY every car repair. I don’t have all the tools or all of the abilities. The dealership service centers are still collecting their toll from me every year. But we can all push back on the system a little, empower ourselves, reduce inconvenience, and avoid being chumps if we bother to understand how things work and take some time to do what we can by ourselves.

I almost lost my resolve over the latest car issue.  The “Check Engine” light had popped on again, this time indicating a failure in the Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) treatment system.  The dealer quoted $2,400 to fix this problem and (on top of several other expensive repairs earlier in the year) that was enough to make me seriously consider pitching the car in a river and signing up for a new car loan.

A technical aside here: DEF is a fluid that gets injected into the exhaust stream to combine with nitrogen oxides chemically to produce much cleaner exhaust.  The output turns into water vapor and free nitrogen. Mercedes calls DEF “Adblue” when they are feeling romantic (e.g., selling cars) and they call it “reductant” when they are feeling technical.  Whatever, it’s all the same thing: a mixture of dionized water and 32.5% urea.

The problem with this stuff is that it freezes when it gets below 12 degrees F, and it crystallizes if exposed to the open air. So to comply with Federal emissions requirements which say that the system must work under all conditions, Bosch designed a fancy system that keeps the DEF warm and sealed. Then they sold this system to a bunch of car manufacturers.

While I’m all for clean air, the DEF system has been a hassle. We’ve had nearly a dozen incidences of “Check Engine” lights attributable to this system over the past eight years, requiring numerous overnight stays at the dealership while the engineers back in Germany huddled together to figure out yet another software update or component upgrade. The frequency of these problems has not decreased with time.  In fact, this summer we had to stop in Pennsylvania to replace a failing NOx (nitrogen oxides) sensor for $600, so this the second emissions-related Check Engine light this year.

When the Mercedes service center said it would be $2,400 for a new DEF tank heater, I began to weaken. It seemed to be too complex a job for me to tackle. Perhaps it would be a good idea to start over with a new car warranty (and massive new car payment).  My doubt began to grow. Then I did a little research and was reminded:

  • trade-in or resale value of our existing car would be ridiculously low.  I wouldn’t sell it for the going rate of about $13,000—it’s still a nice car!
  • the new diesel I’d want is temporarily off the market thanks to fallout from the VW/Audi scandal.  All the manufacturers are being very cautious right now.
  • if I could get a few more years out of the GL, there might be interesting electric vehicle options.  The electric car industry is rocketing forward and it’s not unrealistic to expect major developments in the next 5 years. Then I’d be free of these nightmarish emission-control systems and “Check Engine” lights.

With that bit of Lemonhead perspective, I dug in to the expensive repair I’d been told was needed.  It turns out that the service center solution for a failing DEF tank heater is to replace the entire tank, pump, heater, and temperature sensor as a single unit. The heater is not offered as a single replacement part.

I can see why they do that. Removing the whole thing is a pretty easy job, taking about 60-90 minutes.  Drain the tank, remove eight bolts, disconnect a few wires and a hose, then pull the tank out and swap in a new one.  A dealership technician can do that quickly and not worry about the customer coming back for another problem in the same system, since everything has been replaced. And happy-happy-joy-joy, the dealer makes a pile of money charging $1,800 for the tank and about $600 for labor and supplies.

Adblue tank connections

On the other hand, replacing the heater alone is cheaper but requires some additional work for disassembly, a few more tools, soldering, etc.  That’s the kind of thing I can do myself if it saves a pile of money. I found a company that sells an upgraded version of the tank heater for $300, and with some help from Nick, installed it in a few hours. Eleanor helped me re-assemble the car afterward. Bottom line: The “Check Engine” light is off and all is well.

It’s funny how the elimination of that little fault indicator can suddenly make the car seem like new again. Having the satisfaction of fixing it myself (and saving a pile of cash) makes it even better. I took the GL out for a test drive and everything is humming along just as it should.  Now I’m perfectly happy with the GL—why was I ever considering selling it for a pittance and taking on a massive debt load?

Anza Borrego GL and Caravel 2014-01

In the next week or so I’m going to tackle a major Airstream electrical upgrade with my friend Nate. It’s the kind of thing that an electrician could do for $500 or so, but by doing it myself I know it will be done exactly the way I want—and once again I’ll probably learn a few things (from Nate) in the process.  You can read about it here soon.

An existential crisis for the Mercedes GL

When I bought the Mercedes GL320 in 2009 to be our new tow vehicle, I knew I was taking a big risk.  At $66,000 (out the door, tax included), it was almost double the price of the most expensive vehicle we’d ever purchased.  Mercedes has a reputation for expensive repairs and maintenance, and their dealer service network is small compared to just about any other brand.

The justification for taking this risk is complicated, but the major factor was the diesel powertrain.  At the time, only the European brands (Audi/VW, BMW, Mercedes, Land Rover) offered diesel SUVs, and they rack up impressive performance stats.  In 2009 when we made this purchase, we were planning on many more years of Airstream travel, so it made some sense to invest for the long term. I felt confident the Mercedes 3.0 liter turbodiesel could last for hundreds of thousands of miles while carting as many as 7 people in comfort and delivering fuel economy (not towing) in the upper 30s.

airstream-mercedes-mountain-pass

In the past decade the European diesels have also been impressive for their emissions improvements and quietness. I can start my diesel dead cold in the morning at a campground and hardly anyone will even notice the sound, while the exhaust is scarcely more offensive than baby’s breath.

north-cascades-np-towing-airstream

That’s all very nice, but there is one thing that a tow vehicle must be able to do to justify its existence: tow.  Our GL320, despite having 127,500 miles on it, has done as good a job of that as it ever has—until this week. One tiny problem this week managed to cripple it, rendering the GL entirely worthless as a tow vehicle.

We had a gentle rain on our last night at Beachside State Park on the Oregon coast.  Over a period of hours, a drop or two of water managed to work past the gasket on the right rear taillight, wick through some insulation on the inside, and drip down to a black plastic cover below.  This cover has thin vent slits in it because it houses a very expensive electronic device called a “Signal Acquisition Module” (SAM).

The water dripped through the vent slits and down to the exposed circuit board inside.  When the SAM gets wet, it behaves like any other electronic device when wet: it malfunctions spectacularly.  This SAM happens to control most of the functions in the rear of the vehicle, including trailer lights and brakes. Just one tiny drop of water in the right spot means no trailer lights or brakes.

This has been a recurring problem.  It first cropped up in February 2015 at Alumafiesta after a heavy rain, with the symptoms being taillights that didn’t work for a few hours. I didn’t find the cause until May 2015 at Alumapalooza when it happened again.  I dried the computer with a hair dryer and took it to a northestern Mercedes dealer in June.  The dealer service tech glopped everything up with black sealant and pronounced it fixed, which it wasn’t.

Water hit the SAM again in January 2016, so I dried it again and took the car to another Mercedes dealer (this time in the southwest) and they replaced the right taillight, noting this the leak was a known problem. They said the magic words that they say every time I have to buy an expensive replacement part: “This is an upgraded design, so it won’t have that problem again.”

That was a nice warm and fuzzy thought, but three weeks later the SAM decided it had suffered enough from the prior repeated water intrusions, and it died without warning—while towing in downtown Castro Valley, CA.  Imagine the fun: suddenly, no brakes and no lights on a 7,500 pound trailer in heavy traffic.

This time the hair dryer trick wasn’t going to work.  I had to tow the Airstream through city traffic for a mile with no brakes, signals, or lights to a Walgreen’s parking lot large enough to dump it.  Then I had to convince the manager of the pharmacy to let me leave the Airstream overnight.  Then I had to find a Mercedes dealer and pray that they had the part I needed—on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately Mercedes Benz of Pleasanton had the part and installed it the same day, for $1,300.

All was well until last week, when mysteriously the upgraded taillight assembly let in just a couple of drips during an Oregon sprinkle, and our expensive new SAM got wet for the first time.  You can imagine my reaction when I got into the car and the dash lit up with five warning messages—and of course, no trailer brakes.

After I ranted for a while, Eleanor and I got to work.  About 45 minutes of the hair dryer treatment got everything working except the left turn signal and taillight.  We decided to start towing toward Eugene OR (nearest dealer location).  Two hours later the left turn signal began working again.

In Eugene I had a friendly chat with the service tech, in which I explained that intermittent lack of brakes and lights means the car can’t tow. That triggers what I would call an existential crisis for the Mercedes GL320.  If it can’t tow reliably after a light rain, I can’t use it. He understood the conundrum, but had little to offer other than tearing apart the interior of the car to look for other possible leak points—at $140 per hour, my expense.

I talked with Andy Thomson of Can-Am RV about possible replacement vehicles. Andy has been a very reliable source of information over the years, despite his tendency to terrify Americans with his non-truck towing suggestions. He listed the Audi Q7, BMW X5, and the new Durango (based on the Mercedes platform) as possible replacements, but pointed out that my GL has relatively little trade-in value.

Worse, there are no suitable new diesel SUVs available.  VW screwed us all on that one. Friends at Mercedes dealerships have told me that Mercedes has quietly suspended shipments of new diesel SUVs to the US. Audi and VW of course are out of the question, and BMW’s X5 might be available but it’s too small for us.

So we’ve taken the path of least resistance. The taillight assembly has been replaced again but I’ll never trust it.  We are going to rig up a plastic shield over the SAM to block the water droplets. It’s a low tech, easy fix that will probably work just fine for the life of the car.

And, despite my momentary lapse of confidence, I think we’ll stick with the GL.  Hopefully the SAM will survive this one episode of water intrusion. To be sure I’ll test it a week or two before every trip. I still want to see the odometer turn over 200,000 miles before we re-consider getting rid of it, and more miles would be nice.

On balance the car has been everything I hoped it would be: a comfortable, confident driving, capable tow vehicle. It’s amazing to me how something so small—a drop of water— can entirely destroy the practical value of the car.

[Nerd Alert]  I’m reminded of that scene in “The Fifth Element” when the evil Zorg chokes on a cherry and Father Vito Cornelius says, “There, you see how all your so-called power counts for absolutely nothing now, how your entire empire can come crashing down because of one little cherry.” [/Nerd Alert]  We live by a tenuous thread all the time, and little moments like this make that thread briefly visible.

I guess there’s nothing for it but to keep on towin’. We’re heading to the California redwoods next.

Our tow vehicle repair budget, 2014-2015

People ask me all the time about our experience with the Mercedes GL320 as a tow vehicle.  I think half the people who ask truly want to know if they should consider it for themselves, and the other half are hoping I’ll admit that I really can’t tow my Airstream with anything less than a 3/4 ton truck.  I probably disappoint a lot of people, because I tell the first group the brutal truth about the cost of Mercedes parts and service, and I tell the other half that it has done just fine towing “that big Airstream” for over six years.

It’s time for an update.  The Mercedes now has 107,000 miles.  Probably 80% of those miles were traveled with our 30-foot Airstream Safari in tow, so we’ve certainly worked the Merc as much as we can.

When I bought this car back in 2009 I said it had better give me 250,000 miles of service or I’ve made a big mistake.  To date, I’m encouraged. It hasn’t been amazingly more or less reliable than our previous Nissan Armada, but overall it hasn’t been terrible. There were far too many instances of “Check Engine” lights a few years ago, but all the bugs seem to have been worked out and lately our visits to the dealer have been either routine maintenance or other repairs that are associated with high mileage or age.

The warranty is long gone now, as is the extended warranty.  I pay for all the repairs, so I’m watching the expenses carefully. Here’s what it has consumed (other than routine maintenance like tires and battery) since 2013:

June 2014: Blower motor (for climate control fan) wouldn’t shut off. It was corroded and had shorted out. Replaced at a cost of $539.  Mercedes parts ain’t cheap.

July 2014: The air conditioner had been intermittently failing for years.  It finally got bad enough to replace the compressor, at a cost of $1,289.  Ouch.

October 2014: I tried a shadetree mechanic to save a few bucks on replacing the rear shocks (worn out), right front lower control arm and engine mounts. He screwed it up by failing to tighten a nut on the wheel hub, resulting in a destroyed hub bearing assembly. He also couldn’t get the left engine mount in, so he handed me the part and said, “It’s OK, the right one usually wears out first anyway.” Later I discovered he’d left a wrench under the third row seats, which jammed them until one day the wrench rolled out.

The car ended up at the dealership to finish/correct the work.  Between the hack mechanic and the dealer, the total cost for this debacle was about $3,500 in parts and labor. That included a lot of parts, but still, double ouch. I kept the wrench.

February 2015: The front air struts finally began to leak. This is pretty typical around 100k miles on these cars, sooner if they are driven in the city a lot. Front struts were about $2,000 installed. The rears should be good for a while longer, since they get less stress. We also replaced the battery for the first time.

June 2015: I noticed some weird electrical symptoms following a big rain at Alumapalooza, and went hunting. Sure enough, there was a rain leak around the brake lights that was letting water drip on to one of the very expensive computers that run the car (called a “rear Signal Acquisition Module”). I dried it out and protected the area with a towel until we could get it to the dealership for leak testing and repair.  The tech found two leaks and fixed them at a cost of $247.  Fortunately, the rear SAM survived.

September 2015: During routine service the techs discovered the front propeller shaft (part of the all wheel drive system) had a torn boot and was leaking grease.  There was also an oil leak from the engine.  The oil leak was fixed by replacing two missing screws, but the propeller shaft had to be entirely replaced.  $1,300 for both jobs.

We also finally had to replace the front brakes. They were original brakes!  Normally on a GL most people get about 35,000-45,000 miles, so the Service Advisor did a double-take when he saw we had 107,000 miles on the car. It’s because of the towing, actually.  The Airstream’s excellent disc brakes do most of the work, saving the expensive Mercedes brakes. The dealer price for the front brakes was $551.

OK, so are you falling over with sticker shock or not? The reality of traveling as much as we do and maintaining this car to a high standard is that there’s a definite cost. We spent $5,328 on repairs in 2014, and $4,098 in 2015 (so far), not counting tires, oil changes, battery, etc. That’s over about 17,000 miles of travel, or about $0.55 per mile. It’s a high number but keep in mind we work this machine hard.

Also, the car is paid for, and we like it. Having no monthly payment compensates for a lot of repairs. Realistically, I couldn’t replace the GL320 with anything comparable or more reliable for what we spend on repairs currently*, so economically it makes sense to stick with it.

* For reference, our current repair budget is equivalent to the payment on a $22,000 vehicle financed at 4% for five years.

For me, the key factor is overall reliability. While the car has spent some time in the shop getting replacement parts, those have been planned services. It has never failed us on the road. That’s my personal Rubicon to cross; if the car fails to get us where we are going, I’ll take it out behind the barn and shoot it.  I don’t mind maintenance and replacing worn parts as long as it continues to perform as good as new, but becoming unpredictable and unreliable would put an end to our friendly relationship.

Interestingly, none of the repairs we have had in the first 100,000 miles can be attributed to the “stress of towing.”  A lot of armchair/Internet experts will claim that towing is terribly hard on a vehicle. Our experience has been the opposite. All the highway miles have only lengthened the time certain parts have lasted (front struts and front brakes in particular), and we have had no repairs that can be attributed to towing.

The engine and transmission have yet to show any significant problems at all despite pulling a trailer that typically weighs about 98% of the manufacturer’s suggested tow rating. I have gained a lot of confidence in Mercedes’ design for this V6 Turbodiesel engine. It will probably be the last thing to fail.

I do expect we’ll probably be buying rear air struts and front suspension components in 2016 just due to age and miles, so the budget for annual maintenance will likely stay around $4,000-5,000.  If it gets substantially higher, I’ll start thinking about options for replacement. But for now I’m still aiming to hit 250,000 miles.

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.