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Passport 9500ixVacation trip showcases benefits of some vehicle monitoring devices

By Jim Bray
September 25, 2015

Call it better driving through technology.

A recent vacation trip to visit family on Vancouver Island and in Washington State really brought home the value of a couple of devices I've been using to help keep my car and my family safe - and clear of unnecessary "imperial entanglements."

One helped keep my speed within Smokey's parameters despite a flaw in my car's info systems, while the other correctly diagnosed a different flaw in my car, giving me peace of mind for the rest of our trip.

The first device is the Escort Passport 9500ix radar detector I use when I'm travelling in areas that haven't restricted them yet (which means, basically, Alberta and British Columbia in Canada and most U.S. states). These devices can be considered as ways to avoid speeding tickets and/or demerit points and/or the seizing of the vehicle, but the Escort also came in really handy while in the U.S. specifically, because its flexibility helped keep me out of inadvertent trouble caused by my inherent lead-footedness.

Why? For some weird reason, my 2005 Audi A4 Avant's speedometer lists only the metric system, reading out in kilometres per hour. This is not only weird, since most cars I've driven have both systems on the speedometers, it's also unhelpful when you travel south of the 49th parallel, to the Land of the Not Quite as Free as a Few Years Ago, where the distances and speeds are in miles.

This Audi oversight could therefore have led to me gathering speeding tickets not merely because of issues caused my pb-infected foot which, being the proverbial stranger in a strange land, I was studiously trying to avoid, but also because - math never having been my strong suit - I have trouble making the conversion between the two standards in my head.

Ah, but the Escort displays the vehicle's speed when it smokes out Smokey, and that let me ensure I wasn't speeding when I got zapped - which happened at least 10 times (including one laser attack) between Seattle and the Canadian border crossing in Idaho. The reason it worked so well is that you can set it to display in either Imperial or Metric, via the buttons on the unit itself or via the software that comes with it. This little trick saved me a pile of money, demerit points and/or impoundings! And nagging from my beloved co-driver…

It turned out that there was an unexpected, serendipitous factor as well: the Passport's GPS-based readouts showed that my Audi's speedometer actually errs on the side of "too fast" - in that, according to the Passport, I wasn't driving as quickly as the car's speedometer said I was. I guess I'm not trying hard enough!

I've been using the passport for several years now and it's been a real wallet-saver, especially thanks to its updateable database of red light and speed cameras; as long as they keep updating the database, I'll keep subscribing. The gadget is also robust enough that it has survived several falls onto asphalt, thanks to an oafish owner who tries to carry too many things at once, with no apparent issues.

The other device is out of Newfoundland: Lemur's BlueDriver. This is a Bluetooth-interfacing thingy you mount into your vehicle's data port and use as a diagnostic device. You can monitor your vehicle's status, take a "snapshot" of its current condition, generate repair reports, see how much smog you're inflicting on Gaia (handy if you own a VW diesel, eh?), or find out why your check engine light just came on in the middle of nowhere.


It was this last point that gave me a lot of peace of mind on our trip. The car ran great for the most part, as is its wont, but just before we got to the ferry from Vancouver Island to Anacortes, Washington, its check engine light came on, and didn't that just figure? We were about a thousand kilometres from my mechanic in Calgary, nowhere near an Audi dealer, and about to roll onto the ferry.

I inserted the BlueDriver and tried firing it up, but it wouldn't interface with the app on my iPad. So I used my phone's data plan to visit Lemur's website and initiate a live chat with someone there. As Murphy's Law would have it, the live chat was down right then, but it came back up again soon afterward. Unfortunately, it was just when they announced the ferry was loading and, since I'm quite cheap, I wanted the chat to be wrapped up before I'd have to pay U.S. data roaming charges from my cellular phone provider.

The Lemur person (which isn't the same as a wolf man or a pussy) walked me through potential solutions, and as it turned out it was easy to find the problem: the iPad's Bluetooth was turned off, making connection with the BlueDriver impossible. Well, duh! I definitely felt stupid making such an easy mistake, but we were far from home, the check engine light was marring my beloved Audi's lust worthiness and the time pressure had, obviously, shut down my brain.

Anyway, once that was figured out I drove onto the ferry and ran the diagnostic there - and it told me there were some random misfires in the Audi's V6 (which also explained why it had been running just a tad roughly that otherwise fine morning). Fortunately, I'd seen that movie before: the BlueDriver had diagnosed that issue already, at home, and my mechanic said it was something I should get fixed someday, but it wasn't pressing. This is one of the reasons I go to this guy: he seems more interested in doing it right than merely extracting cash.

Once I realized this wasn't a new problem, and that it wouldn't leave us on the side of the road, I had the BlueDriver reset the check engine light so it wouldn't bother me with the same problem again on the trip. Then we continued our merry way to Seattle and home to Calgary, with no other issues. The misfires never recurred the rest of the trip and the check engine light stayed off, putting my wife and I at ease.

Sure, I'll have to get the engine fixed one of these days, but thanks to my car reviewing gig we don't drive the Audi very much anyway, so I have time to save up the money.

But thanks to the BlueDriver, our trip went from one in which we could have spent the last week suffering from paranoia about being dumped onto the side of the road waiting for a tow truck, to being armed with the knowledge that, while there is an issue, it's nothing new and nothing that would affect our journey. Peace of mind when far from home.

And now that I've been reminded of the misfire issue, which I admit to having forgotten, I can get around to having it dealt with as soon as we've paid off the credit cards run up during our trip!

Moral of the story? The old chestnut "forewarned is forearmed" applies to driving, too. And while the Passport (currently $450 U.S. on Escort's website) isn't cheap, it paid for itself on this trip alone - and over the six years I've been using it it's saved me countless dollars and demerits. That makes it an even better value. The BlueDriver's $100 (plus the cost of your tablet or smart phone) has also paid for itself in knowledge and peace of mind. And since the BlueDriver will give you a diagnosis before you go into the shop, you know where to point the dealership or technician when you get there. And that could save you money and hassle.

Copyright 2015 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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