17 gadgets and apps to make your dumb car smarter

Useful technology for your commute.

You don’t have to wait for self-driving cars to upgrade your experience behind the wheel. You don’t even have to buy an expensive new luxury vehicle. Instead, add some 21st-century intelligence to your drive with a few smart gadgets and apps. These devices can log the miles you’ve driven, improve your parking, spot engine problems before they get serious, and more. Best of all, none of them will break the bank.

Tap into vehicle data

Since 1996, most cars made for sale in the US have had what’s known as an on-board diagnostics, or OBD-II, port. Located under the dashboard, this opening allows mechanics and manufacturers to access data about the vehicle’s mileage and current state of health. By plugging a specialized sensor into this port and downloading an app to interpret its findings, you can bypass the pros and tap into this on-board information yourself.

You can’t go wrong with Dash, which provides both the free app (available for iOS and Android) and the hardware you’ll need. In fact, it offers a variety of sensors, ranging in price from $10 to $99. Each device can pick up and record different types of diagnostic information—such as distances, routes, fuel consumption, and engine health—so make sure the product description says it can sense the stats you want to access. When you choose a sensor and put it in the OBD-II port, it sends this data to the app, which tracks, interprets, and shares the details. For example, if you break down, Dash can give you a report on what’s wrong and how much it will probably cost to fix; if you’re in a crash, Dash can automatically notify close friends and family.

Like Dash, Automatic offers both a smartphone app and a physical sensor, and it has an almost identical set of features. In addition, it includes extras like a dedicated response team to help if you have an accident, and real-time tracking of your driving and parking. The number of extras you receive depends on the plan you buy. The Automatic Lite plan has route tracking and engine diagnostics, and it will set you back a one-time fee of $80; the Pro version comes with crash assistance and support for third-party extensions, and it costs $130.

If you don’t care for the comprehensive route tracking you get from Dash and Automatic, you can purchase similar services that concentrate less on tracking and more on diagnostics. Fixd charges $60 for a single sensor, which you can then pair with the free app (for iOS or Android). After a certain number of miles, it will send you maintenance reminders, and it will also flag any issues the engine might be experiencing.

OBD Auto Doctor works along similar lines, and it can run from a Windows or macOS computer as well as an iOS or Android device. Look up fuel consumption, diagnose engine problems, track your car’s health, and more—you can try the app for free, but to see all the data you need to pay a one-time unlock fee of $18. On top of the unlock price, you’ll also need to buy a compatible OBD-II sensor, such as the LELink Bluetooth ($35 on Amazon).

Install sensors

An OBD-II sensor acts as a quick and easy upgrade—you can fit it in seconds—but if you’d prefer more specialized features, you can try out a variety of stand-alone devices to help you park, record your ride, and control your entertainment.

Many cars now come fitted with cameras and detectors that make parking easier. If yours doesn’t, you can find a range of aftermarket sensors to fit any vehicle. For example, the Pemenol Reverse Parking Controller $30 on Amazon comes with four sensors you attach to the rear of a vehicle. These detect nearby objects, then pass this information to a device on the dashboard that buzzes when you get close to rear-ending an obstacle. Spend more money, and you can get kits with more options: The Pyle Car Backup system ($60 on Amazon) comes with a camera you place on the car’s back and a 7-inch screen you can mount to the dashboard to make sure you’re slotting perfectly into the available space. No matter your budget or your car, you can find a parking bundle that suits your needs..

Speaking of cameras, if you’re seeking another smart and reasonably-priced upgrade, consider a dashcam. In the event of a smash-up, it gives you video evidence of everything that happened. Manufacturers have a huge range of camera options, so we’d like to single out two of our favorites. The Z-Edge Ultra ($100 on Amazon) records with full HD video quality, has the ability to pick out license plates, and starts and stops recordings automatically based on when the car is running. If you’re willing to spend a little more, the Falcon Zero F360+ ($170 on Amazon) has built-in night vision and dual cameras for monitoring the inside and the outside of the car at the same time. This will come in handy for Uber drivers who want to keep an eye on their passengers. To save space, it fits right over the rear-view mirror.

Finally, consider upgrading your entertainment and navigation system with a stereo that supports Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Both systems let your car’s dashboard mirror useful apps, such as maps and music, from your iPhone or your Android device, making them easier to control. Many new cars now let you use both options, but older vehicles may not support them. In that case, you can swap out the existing head unit with a modern one and enjoy the best of Apple or Android. The Sony XAV-AX100 ($438 on Amazon) and JVC KW-V830BT ($412 on Amazon) have the distinction of supporting both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in the same device. If you’d prefer to save money, however, you can opt for a unit that only supports one or the other—as long as you don’t plan to switch phone platforms in the near future.

Download apps

Don’t want to buy hardware? Try one of these apps, which can add smarts to your drive without requiring that you plug any physical hardware into your vehicle. They’ll help you save money on gas, record your commute, find the best parking, and navigate smoothly.

Take the free app GasBuddy (for iOS and Android), which looks at all the gas stations in your local area and sorts the results by price and distance. It can direct you to the cheapest fuel nearby, allowing you to take your pick and keep costs down to a minimum.

Meanwhile, if you don’t want to pay for a separate dashcam, you can get your phone to do the job, provided that you have a good mount and a power cable. Two of the better free apps are Dash Cam 2 (for iOS only) and CaroO (for Android only). They use your phone’s camera to record what’s happening on the road ahead of you and then safely store the footage in case you need it later.

As for parking, BestParking (for iOS and Android) will help you compare parking spots and prices at multiple locations within a city. So no matter where you plan to explore, you can work out the most convenient and cost-effective place to leave your car. While you can download and use the app for free, if you upgrade to a premium account for a one-time fee of $3, you’ll receive extra search filters and photographs of potential parking lots.

Finally, don’t forget your trusty mapping apps, such as Apple Maps (for iOS only), Google Maps (for iOS and Android), and Waze (for iOS and Android). They can get you from A to B along the fastest route, warn you about traffic problems, and direct you to nearby parking spots in busy locations. Even if your car comes with a built-in GPS system, try comparing its performance to the apps on your phone to see if they offer any improvements.