No word yet on when cars will be able to take the wheel while dressing you in a suit, à la “The Incredibles,” but today’s carmakers are still coming up with some pretty fancy new technology.
As the industry barrels toward autonomous vehicles, new cars include increasingly advanced ways to protect drivers, such as automatic braking and blind spot monitoring. Plus, new car technology often means posh comfort features. Think Wi-Fi access and massaging seats.
But it’s not always affordable to buy a new car or expensive technology packages, and buying a used car — or holding on to a car longer — is much more practical for many shoppers.
The good news is, you don’t need a new car to get some of the latest upgrades. Several aftermarket devices can be added to your current ride to give it capabilities found in new models, often for less than $100 each.
Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, is a “big believer” in upgrading older cars with new technology.
“Especially if it’s a car you otherwise really like. I have an old 2005 Ford GT, which is a unique car they only made for two years. It’s a car I can’t just go get a newer version of,” Brauer says. “If I want a more modern feature in my car, I have to add it myself. So I put an upgraded head unit that in one fell swoop of installation went from a single CD player and AM/FM radio to something that could play everything but Blu-ray.”
Below are a few of the ways to give your trusty ride a technology facelift — from heated seats to rearview camera capabilities — without spending a fortune.
1. Heads-up displays
In a world of Oculus Rift and virtual reality video games, the auto industry is ripe for a video projection upgrade.
Heads-up displays, or HUDs, show navigation for drivers as a transparent image projected on the windshield and have been included in newer car models by brands such as Audi, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Land Rover.
HUDs not only display arrows for upcoming turns, but also information like your speed, mileage, engine warnings and more — all without ever requiring your eyes to leave the road. It’s typically offered as a factory-installed add-on but is becoming standard equipment on higher-end cars and even some midlevel models.
You can find standalone aftermarket HUDs for $100 to $300; they typically project onto a transparent screen that sits on the dashboard in front of your windshield and displays directions and engine warnings. Other companies have designed stands and smartphone apps that provide HUD capabilities for even less, like the Hudway Glass for $49.95.
2. Seat heaters and massagers
Want to give your car the comfort level of a spa? Start with the seats.
Built-in heating pads in car seats debuted on the 1966 Cadillac DeVille, but the cozy upgrade has soared in popularity in recent years, with heated seats offered on almost every new model today. In fact the 2016 Ford F-150, a pickup truck, not only offers a seat warmer, but also front-seat cooling and massaging capabilities as well.
If your car didn’t come with upgraded seats, you don’t have to miss out. You can buy seat covers with various heating settings for less than $50, such as Bed Bath & Beyond’s heated car seat cushion for $39.99. More advanced cushions can provide cooling and massages, while still costing less than $100. Two examples with high customer ratings, the Five Star FS8812 10-Motor Vibration Massage Seat Cushion ($59.99) and the Gideon Luxury Cooling and Heating Ventilated Seat Cushion ($49.95), are available through Amazon.
3. Parking sensors
Twisting in and out of small parking spots is incredibly stressful, and often leads to scratched doors or fender benders. The latest automobiles can sometimes take the wheel for you with automatic parking, but there’s an affordable way to add parking help to your current car.
Parking sensors typically activate when you shift into reverse. Using sound waves, the sensors detect surrounding objects and use increasing beeping or lights to warn drivers when they’re coming close to hitting something.
Aftermarket sensors can be purchased for less than $35, like Zone Tech’s Car Reverse Backup Radar System for $15.75. Of course, the more you spend, the more features the tool typically offers. Original manufacturer parts with multiple sensors may cost up to $300, such as the JustforJeeps.com Park Distance Sensors for $306.90.
And while experienced professional installation is always a plus, several sensors don’t require drilling or wiring, and can be installed at home. Just make sure they’re compatible with your car before buying.
4. Rearview camera
We can’t sing the praises of rearview cameras enough — they’ve become essential safety equipment for nearly all vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require them in all new vehicles after May 1, 2018, as rearview blind spots account for over 15,000 injuries each year, and backup cameras reduce this blind zone by about 90%.
You can buy a quality rearview camera that you can install yourself for less than $150. Auto retail chain Pep Boys offers a wireless backup camera for $127.49 online.
5. Bluetooth stereos
Nobody wants a ticket for holding a cell phone, or worse, an accident caused by distracted driving. And in today’s constantly connected world, that makes Bluetooth capabilities a fan favorite upgrade.
Bluetooth installation wirelessly syncs your phone to your sound system, so drivers can speak to callers over their car speakers, display incoming alerts on their dashboard, and operate their phone’s music through the car stereo — meaning no more manually scrolling through your tiny device to find Beyonce’s “Lemonade” on your morning commute.
And you don’t have to buy a whole new vehicle to get one. Simply replace your current stereo with a Bluetooth-equipped one. A reliable model can be found for under $150. Best Buy’s Kenwood radio, at $79.99, has over 100 positive customer reviews, and the company’s Geek Squad auto techs will install it for $64.99. Also, many independent shops sell stereos and provide installation for varying fees.
Nicole Arata is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected].
Photo of a heads-up windshield display courtesy of Hudway Glass.