There are three great reasons to want to upgrade your vehicle today: The first is safety, the second is fuel economy, and the third is technology. In each of these areas, the auto industry has made great leaps in the past decade. But what if a new car just isn’t in your immediate future? While it may not be possible to retroactively improve your car’s crashworthiness or make it more efficient, there are products out there that can bring it closer to the cutting edge of tech.
Which brings us to the Harman Spark. This is a small electronic device about the size of a deck of cards. It has its own cellular connection, GPS receiver, accelerometer, and Wi-Fi antenna. You plug it into your vehicle’s diagnostic port and sync it with an app on your smartphone, giving your vehicle both a Wi-Fi hotspot and remote tracking and diagnostic capabilities. I tested one for two weeks to better explain how this clever gadget might be useful to you.
The Spark is a Wi-Fi hotspot that also offers some extra telematics features. (Image: Harman)
Plugging it in
Every 1996 model year or newer vehicle has something called an OBD-II port (On-Board Diagnostics) located under the dashboard. This interface is how mechanics can troubleshoot problems with your car, like a check-engine warning light. The Spark uses this port, which allows it to read information directly from your car’s internal communications network.
I plugged the Spark into my 2011 Volkswagen Jetta, downloaded the free app onto my Android phone, created an account, and went for a drive. Within two miles the Spark had synced with my car and phone and was ready to go. To use the Spark as a wifi hotspot you do need to sign up for a separate monthly data plan.
Once you’ve got your data service activated, setting up the Wi-Fi hotspot is simple. You can rename the default network and change its password in the app, then connect your phone or computer to the Spark just like you would any other wifi network. The hotspot works on a 4G LTE cellular network and supports up to eight devices at once.
Plug the Harman Spark into the diagnostic port underneath your vehicle’s dashboard, and it will sync up to your smartphone in just a few minutes. (Photo: Ride/Jeff Sabatini)
Going for a drive
Wi-Fi is certainly the Spark’s best trick, but it’s not the only thing it does. Because it’s plugged into your car’s diagnostic port, it can monitor your battery’s state of charge as well as identify problems that would trigger a dashboard warning light. The Spark works similarly to a mechanic’s trouble code scanner, reading the “code” that identifies what sort of underlying condition trips the warning light. Thankfully my car had a good battery and no running problems during my test.
The Spark’s GPS tells the app where your vehicle is, so you can pull up a map that will pinpoint your vehicle’s location, even when it’s moving. This can certainly be helpful for locating your car if you’ve parked in an unfamiliar location. The app will also track each of your trips, monitoring speed and location, as well as braking and acceleration. A trip log allows you to see the time, top speed, and other data, as well as a “score” for driving efficiency.
One evening, I used the tracking feature to keep an eye on my wife’s progress as she fought rush hour traffic on her way home from work, perfectly timing dinner to match her arrival. Of course, this technology could be used for less benign objectives. In fact, Harman has included some extra features that are directly aimed at monitoring teen drivers, including geo-fencing, speed notifications, and curfew alerts.
With the Spark installed, you’ll never lose track of which block you parked your car on again. (Photo: Ride/Jeff Sabatini)
The eye in the sky
While the alert notification capabilities of the Spark may be strong selling points, they were the weakest features in actual use. Although you can set up the Spark to trigger an alert when your car exceeds a set speed, leaves a designated area, or is driven at a certain time of day, the interface could stand for improvement. Hopefully Harman can address the shortcomings of the software through an update to the app.
For instance, the lowest speed limit you can set is 65 miles per hour. While this might be fine in some locales, most speed limits on the freeways near my house are 55 mph. Setting the boundaries for the geofence alert requires that it be a circle, rather than being able to draw a line on a map or outline a city or county. Even programming a curfew is difficult, because the app doesn’t allow the end time to be earlier than the start time. So setting, say, a 10:00 pm to 7:00 am curfew actually requires creating two separate curfews, one from 10:00 pm to midnight and another from midnight to 7:00 am.
During my testing time, I experienced some unsent notifications, despite having exceeded my speed limit setting. While the Spark logged the trip and showed that the top speed on that trip was higher than my alert threshold, an alert never popped up. But the biggest drawback to the Spark’s notification system is that it does not have the ability to send texts or e-mails. Instead it requires you to have the app running on your phone, and sends all notifications through the app.
The Spark app works with both Android phones and iPhones. (Image: Android screen captures)
Although the Spark leaves room for improvement, as a dedicated in-car hotspot it performs well. So long as you understand the limitations of its extra telematics features, it’s worthy of consideration.
The Harman Spark is available through AT&T and carries a retail price of $79.99, plus $10 per month without a Wi-Fi data plan, or $30 per month with an unlimited data plan.