Anyone who's had the "check engine" light come on suddenly knows how unnerving that can be. Maybe it's nothing more than a loose gas cap. Or maybe it's something that requires a mechanic, fast.
So CarMD, based in Fountain Valley, Calif., has created a hand-held diagnostic gadget that plugs into a car's computer to monitor sensors, brakes and safety systems, and lets you know just what might have caused that light to go on -- without an expensive trek to the shop. If problems are identified, tech support certified by the Automobile Service Association is at hand to help with next steps. ($89, carmd.com)
It's just one of many gadgets aimed at giving car owners a safer or more enjoyable ride.
If you're worried about teens or elderly parents at the wheel, consider Motolingo's Motoriety Pro app, which sends data to your smartphone on driving performance (heavy braking and accelerating, for example) and also lets you know when the driver is texting or on the phone. There's a "Geofence" feature that alerts you if the vehicle strays outside a given perimeter.
If that's too Big Brother for you, the company also offers Motocarma, an app that lets you know when the car's engine light goes on, or the fuel is low, or a speed threshold has been breached -- things some distracted drivers may not notice themselves. ($60-$100, motolingo.com)
For about $35 per year per family, you can install DriveSafe, an app that reads incoming text and e-mail messages out loud in the car, with an option to respond, hands-free. You can choose from several languages, and male or female voices. (drivesafe.ly)
Apps that might please urban drivers include Innix Traffic's Trip Predictor, which provides arrival estimates given present road conditions; Spotfinder, which locates the nearest parking spots; Parking Meter, which counts down the minutes left on your meter; and Carfinder (where'd you park again?).
If you live in deer country, you might consider Bell Automotive's deer whistle. Mountable on the front of the vehicle, it emits a deer-alerting sound between 30 and 75 mph. There's no guarantee your car won't hit a deer, but at least you'll give the animal some warning. They've got a handy backlit tire gauge too. ($7.99, $12.99, bellautomotive.com )
Music aficionados might want Soundmatters' Fox LV2, a portable hi-fi Bluetooth speaker that gets good industry reviews. Mountable in the vehicle, the speaker ostensibly gives theater-quality sound for music and conference-room-quality sound for hands-free phone calls. ($199, soundmatters.com)
Driving in foreign countries, it's often hard to remember which side of the road you should be on. With Lanesafe, you've got a dashboard-mounted reminder that shows you where you should be via a solar or battery-powered windshield projection. (about $32, wallacecameron.com)
Autonet Mobile's CarFi is a portable wireless router and docking station which turns the car into a secure wi-fi spot. Great for those who use a proprietary computer for their day job, or for RVs, boats and trucks. Expandable memory is an option. ($349.99, amazon.com)
Sky Mall stocks My Secure Touch's Biometric Vehicle starter, which uses a fingerprint, pulse, blood pressure, and body temperature to make sure nobody who isn't authorized can start your car. You can control a number of parameters including Access Control; if your teenager is grounded, you won't have to worry about the car getting a joy ride. ($599.95, skymall.com)