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Road Trip!

Getting there with guidance from above.

Chaucer had it right: When April comes around, people think about going on pilgrimages. Well, the modern equivalent of pilgrimages anyway…namely road trips. And that brings people like me who hate cars but have to live with them back into the hot seat. And this spring, it’s a new hot seat.

I logged tens of thousands of miles on my long-suffering 1993 Corolla before the thing finally told me it had had enough. The manual transmission went from five-speed to three-speed forcing me to go everywhere in second gear unless I could push it to screaming point and switch it all the way up to fifth. It did this for the space of one commute before it took a cue from the Blues Brothers’ car, and fell apart. The bad news? I had tens of thousands of miles of travel and research to do in the great state of Maryland, so I needed to get a brand-spanking second-hand runaround to do it in.

I got one, thanks to research at and So far so good. But my new vehicle seemed to have an always-on Check Engine light. For the first month, I could take it back to the dealership, where they’d tell me it was a clogged filter or a gas tank cap that wasn’t screwed on properly, and all I’d lose was a day’s use of my new car, in exchange for some very dodgy loaner rentals. But that couldn’t go on forever. The dealership warranty on a cheap second-hand car seldom does.

So I took what I do know, namely computers, and applied it to what I don’t, namely cars. To get the best out of this car, I needed two elements: A good guidance system that I could move into a rental car when my own was being fixed or serviced, and something to give me feedback on those pesky Check Engine lights. I found good solutions to both problems: CarChipfrom Davis Automotive and ALK Technology’s CoPilot Live for PocketPC.

The closest I get to enjoying car maintenance is listening to “Car Talk” on National Public Radio. Those Tappet Brothers cackle and guffaw enough to take the tension out of any car trouble. Thankfully, Davis’s CarChipE/X does the same (and without the pledge drives). This little device is about the size of an inkjet cartridge and plugs into a port that’s mounted under the dashboard of more of less all cars made after 1999. It’s called the ODBII port, and once plugged in, it logs all kinds of data, including the time, date, and distance of your trips, the speed, any hard accelerations and braking, and, most important of all, engine diagnostic trouble codes. You can also monitor four out of 23 engine parameters, including RPM, engine load, and fuel pressure.

At the PC end, the CarChipE/X plugs into a USB port and downloads up to 300 hours of data into a neat charting program. I’m a bit fastidious about fuel economy, so it was handy to that I’d fallen into a gunning-and-braking habit, and also that my air flow wasn’t up to snuff, which cost me some power and made me a little lead-footed.

It may take a while for me to make back the $179 that this chip cost, but it has added benefits that I can’t ignore. For one thing, it tracks actual car usage, so if you need to log miles for business, you can plug it in when you travel for business. And it cuts down on the “take my money” look you have on my face when you step into the repair shop. I’ve always dreamed of breezing in and saying “I’ve been monitoring my air flow rate, and it’s dropped a lot–I think it’s affecting my mileage.

And there’s an error 52 triggering my Check Engine light. It’s got something to do with the knock sensor circuit. Any clues?” It may not actually cut down on repair time or cost, but it sure feels like it. And it beats the sinking panic that those Check Engine lights used to give me. In fact, CarChip can turn off the Check Engine light if you instruct it to.

Take me home as fast as possible!

My sense of direction is terrible, and I get lost quickly. To cut down on mileage and frustration of having to turn back, I’ve been using GPS guidance software on my laptop for years, but frankly it’s only convenient when there’s nobody in the passenger seat, and when the cigarette lighter provides enough juice to keep the laptop fully charged. That’s not always been the case, so I’ve been using ALK Technology’s PocketPC-based CoPilot software of late, and it’s perfectly suited to the task.

CoPilot Live PocketPC can run on any handheld running Windows Mobile 5 or later, and comes on a 1GB SD card, so there’s no installation necessary–you slip in the card, and tap in a destination, and you’re ready to run. For more concerted trip planning, the bundle comes with a CD for installing the software on a desktop or laptop for planning trips (which you can then synch up with your PocketPC before you travel. And it’s okay if you travel north across the border too: the card comes complete with data for all of North America, including Canada.

No GPS system is perfect, of course, but CoPilot makes everything you need to do (plan trips, take detours, recalculate routes to avoid a blocked road, and change lanes in good time to make a turn) easy enough to do, even when you’re in a hurry or flustered behind the wheel.

The only thing you need to think about with CoPilot Live for PocketPC is the GPS receiver. If you happen to have a PocketPC with one built in (such as the MiTAC Z3), you’re golden. If not, you can get a Bluetooth receiver by adding a c-note to the invoice with ALK. CoPilot Live PocketPC is $299 by itself, and $399 with a Bluetooth GPS receiver.

Best of all, unlike a dash-mounted or laptop-based GPS system, you can pick up CoPilot Live PocketPC and stick the whole thing in your pocket, and take it out if you need directions when you’re on foot. And when your car suddenly loses third and fourth gear just off the Beltway, that’s the most useful feature of all.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake writes SOHO Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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