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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Teaching old cars new tricks, with high-tech safety systems

David L. Ryan

My Ford Taurus is no DeLorean, but it’s still a time machine. From the 2002 model year, it transports me to a simpler era, when the driver’s skill and attention span counted for more than fancy digital gadgets.

Anyway, that’s what I tell myself as I gaze with envy at newer vehicles with collision-avoidance sensors, blind-spot monitors, and backup cameras.

The stuff is called ADAS, for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, and they are now standard issue on millions of new cars.

But the average car in the United States is nearly 12 years old, so there are millions of vehicles on the road without ADAS. For a few hundred to a few thousand bucks, though, most cars can be retrofitted with the latest ADAS devices. It’s become a billion-dollar business in the United States, says the Specialty Equipment Market Association.


At Sound In Motion, an aftermarket shop in Allston that specializes in high-end car audio, safety devices are now about 25 percent of its business.

“We’re never going to sell like iPhones,” said owner Derek Kenney, partly because few people realize they can upgrade an older car. “That’s the biggest problem our industry has.”

Still, the shop is busy. When I dropped by, technicians were installing a blind-spot monitor on a 2017 Audi Q5. The owner could have gotten this option from the dealer, but only as part of a $7,000 options package that included stuff she didn’t want. Sound In Motion did just the blind-spot monitor, for $1,500.

A camera that was added blends in the grill of vehicle at Sound In Motion in Allston.David L Ryan/Globe Staffe

Parked at the curb was a 2008 Ford F-350, a massive crew cab pickup owned by Paul Lashua, an insurance adjuster from Andover and a Sound In Motion regular. He’s had them install a Mobileye collision-avoidance system, which uses a camera and data from the car’s internal computer to monitor the distance to cars up ahead, and detect pedestrians stepping in front of the vehicle. An alarm warns the driver to hit the brakes. A Mobileye system runs about $2,000.


The 70-year-old Vietnam vet is an unabashed gearhead. A descendant of Blackfeet and Penobscot Indians, Lashua makes regular trips to a reservation in Montana, where he sponsors children. So he spent another $3,500 for a military-grade FLIR night-vision system that uses infrared sensors to detect nearby people, animals, and objects. When it’s switched on, pedestrians along the street glow white from their body heat. But FLIR is even more valuable for lighting up deer and other wildlife on pitch-black rural roads.

“This is not to be confused with the one that plugs into your iPhone,” Kenney said of the FLIR system. “This is military grade. They ask for a background check for you to buy it.”

Sound In Motion was also installing a 360-degree camera setup in a 2014 Ford delivery van. Wide-angle cameras go on the front and rear of the vehicle and on each side mirror. The images are stitched together with software and displayed on a dashboard-mounted screen. The resulting video image is like looking down from above the vehicle and seeing everything within 10 feet, on every side. It’s a big help when parking or pulling away from the curb. Adding it costs about $2,500.

ADAS systems are lifesavers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The federal agency has made backup cameras mandatory on all new cars and recommends that consumers seek out cars with collision-avoidance systems. A 2015 study by Boston Consulting Group, commissioned by the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, predicted that ADAS systems would reduce crashes by 28 percent if installed in all cars, eliminate $250 billion a year in damages to people and property, and save about 10,000 lives annually.


But aftermarket ADAS has its limits. Nearly all the systems are “passive,” meaning they merely tell the driver what’s going on. For instance, aftermarket collision warning systems will alert you if there’s an obstacle ahead. But they won’t stop the car for you, like the automatic emergency braking systems found on some new cars.

There’s also the price. Not every old car is worth safety upgrades costing thousands, though not every ADAS add-on requires major surgery. Garmin offers an entry-level dash camera system that doubles as a collision-warning device. For about $300, you get a GPS navigation device that also scans the road ahead and alerts you to slow down. It also warns when the car strays from its lane, and even detects signs of driver fatigue.

Backup cameras are also easy. A company called Pyle makes several, including one that sells for a little over $40. Even with the cost of installation, that’s dirt cheap.

Since I barely drive 20 miles a month, I don’t see much point in updating my ancient Ford. But it’s good to know that with so many aftermarket ADAS options, there’s nothing to stop me if I want to.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.