How New Car Technology Is Forcing Radar Detectors to be More … – Road & Track

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Radar signals from vehicle safety systems are confounding detectors, but manufacturers are finding new ways to battle back.
When it comes to technology, unintended consequences can really bite.
The piece of automotive tech that I rely on most is one that I install myself: an old-school radar detector. While I love a head-up display and appreciate Air Play, a top-tier detector has always been the one thing that I insist on using no matter what. If I’m driving, I’ve got a detector working.
So I suppose it’s only fitting that another piece of new technology is fouling it all up.
It isn’t that law enforcement has significantly upped its game. It’s the proliferation of new-age safety sensor systems. According to executives at companies like Escort Inc., the radio band frequencies are suddenly teeming with signals from autos using active lane assist, blind-spot monitoring, and automatic emergency braking.
These new-age safety aids use the same K and Ka frequencies as law enforcement radar, which make detectors go wild with false alerts. That makes them pretty worthless, or at the least, exceedingly annoying.
I didn’t need to get this information from a press release, sadly. My once-beloved Valentine One, widely acknowledged as one of the best radar detectors on the market, has devolved from a nearly faultless unit to a schizophrenic one, shouting shrilly with nary a cop in site. The culprit was usually an Audi Q7 or Mercedes-Benz E-Class, pacing traffic with active cruise control engaged.
The end of the world? Perhaps not, but I have a deep and abiding love of the devices. I’ve used them for nearly two decades. Invariably a passenger will point to the chunky device in my windshield and ask, “Does that thing really work?” Yes, absolutely. And yes, they give false signals. But like any background noise, you tune out the occasional R2-D2-esque squawk until it emits a certain kind of insistent, steady beep, which invariably means a state trooper lurking around a corner. I know when it’s the real thing.
The second question I often get: “So, you speed that much?”
Having a radar detector is not a tacit admission that you are an unrepentant lawbreaker or Cannonball Run participant. It is simply a source of extra information that the vast majority of my fellow commuters choose to ignore. Like live traffic information from satellite radio that’s fed into your navigation system, a detector gives me advance knowledge before most anyone else—it’s up to me how to react. (And yes, they are legal everywhere in the U.S. except for Virginia and Washington D.C.)
This is especially relevant because all too often ticketing is about generating revenue, not increasing safety. Many municipalities keep speed limits on certain stretches of road artificially low. I can think of at least one road within five miles of my own house. The Palisades Parkway, which begins at the western terminus of Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge, is an absurd 50 miles an hour.
It is a four-lane divided highway, unimpeded and free flowing. The result, of course, is that the average driver goes 10 to 15 miles over. Travel slower than that and you risk catching a Grand Caravan in your rear bumper. The net effect is that everyone on the parkway drives well over the limit. Even more cynically, a 12-mile stretch in New Jersey has its very own police force and court system, a self-supporting—and self-perpetuating—ecosystem. I’ll give them this: It creates jobs.
One solution is switching to the app Waze. Just tap the app when you see a cop, and you alert fellow motorists. But the app has the ability to always track your location whether you’re using it or not, which I find creepy.
I could also send my Valentine back in for upgraded software to combat the false alerts, which the company calls Junk-K Fighter. It would cost me $79, not including shipping and time lost. (The last time I upgraded it, in 2013, the software apparently wasn’t available yet.) But maybe it was time to shift loyalties. A colleague swore that Escort’s latest Max series was the answer. He was using the Passport Max2, a $600 unit, and promised that he was getting only a few moving-car-based alerts.
If the Passport Max2 realizes that the signal is coming from, say, a Mercedes, the detector won’t go off.
I talked to the Cincinnati-based company and discovered that they had shifted tactics, changing from analog processors to digital processing chips. Ron Gividen, Escort’s PR and marketing director, explained to me that each car manufacturer’s sensor systems have a unique “fingerprint.” The latest Escort processing technology in the Max2 seeks to take in a signal and see if matches up to any of those known fingerprints. If the detector realizes that the signal is coming from, say, a Mercedes, the detector won’t go off. If it does detect a legitimate signal, the Max2 issues a warning and uses new directional cues to tell you where the signal is coming from.
“In the past, we filtered a digital signal, but there was no intelligent processing going on,” Gividen says. “We didn’t try to read the wave form. With real digital processing chips, the instant the wave form is seen, it is immediately converted into a digital wave form. With an incredible amount of speed and high-power scrutiny, we analyze the digital signature.”
I just wanted it to work. The company loaned me latest unit, the $649 Max 360, for a month. I tried it out on everything from a Porsche Cayman GT4 to a Mercedes AMG (which often gave me Valentine fits). It did give me a few false hits—I’m pretty sure an Acura was at fault at one point—but it was remarkably quiet.
It also works off a GPS unit (unlike the Valentine), pulling off a database of speed cameras and known speed traps to give me an extra heads-up—which worked beautifully when I was traveling through a speed camera trap in Arizona where the speed limit suddenly dropped by 10 mph for less than a mile. (Every local slowed down, but every out-of-state license plate blazed blithely on.) The Max2’s directional arrows—a longstanding asset of the Valentine—are absolutely essential. You want to know if that cop is in front of you or behind you, after all.
But, according to Gividen, the war goes on. “Even Honda is coming out with new radar-based sensors, so it’s a constant battle to identify those new systems,” he says.
The horizon is always moving. And a new detector isn’t necessarily cheap. But it’s better than getting caught in a shifty Arizona speed trap.
(Jason Harper, a contributing editor to Road & Track, has tested and written on cars for two decades. His scariest drive was a rally race in an original Lancia 037, his first drive of a supercar was the Porsche Carrera GT, and the only time he’s gotten a speeding ticket was in a base Mini Cooper. His column, Harper’s Bizarre, runs every Wednesday.)


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