Going the Distance

Auto Remote Starters Evolve

Because of smartphone technology, auto remote starters now have unlimited range, which allows you to check your locks or warm up your battery from miles away. You don’t have a smartphone? Then you should know that the maximum reach of traditional starters has increased to 6,000 feet.

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Land Rover/Directed Electronics

Imagine that you’re on vacation in Miami in January. Back home in Cleveland it’s frigid, and you parked your car in the airport’s long-term lot. You dread the thought that your battery might wear down or even die in the subzero freeze, and you want to make sure that your car stays charged and even toasty upon your return.

Believe it or not, there’s an app for that. Viper’s SmartStart system, which was introduced in October 2009, lets you start and warm your car by using your smartphone. It costs $499 as a complete system and $299 as an add-on module that works with other Viper systems. So, from your poolside cabana, you can start your car, let it run for a while, shut it off and go back to basking in the warmth.

The ability to use a smartphone to control a vehicle is the most dramatic development among auto remote starters since we last reviewed these products 4 years ago. Like most two-way remotes, a smartphone-based remote allows you to arm and disarm security systems; lock, unlock and remotely start your vehicle; pop the trunk; and even sound a horn (to help you to find your vehicle in a large parking lot).

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A smartphone-based remote starter also will send you a message to confirm that your command has gone through and that your car has started. And it comes with password protection to prevent unauthorized use of the app—and the starter and your vehicle—in the event that your phone is lost or stolen. The range of a smartphone-based system is unlimited as long as you have 3G cellular service, 2G or a Wi-Fi connection. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t work where there is no cell service, and the system can stall if your phone has a shaky connection. Ken Gammage of Directed Electronics, which owns Viper, says these problems are not widespread.

Viper’s SmartStart app, which is free for the first year and $30 each year after, works with the Apple iPhone, iPod Touch and any BlackBerry model. The company planned to add a Google Android app in June, Gammage tells us.

Viper got the early jump on the market. But at press time, Compustar was expected to introduce its Drone smartphone-based system in late May at approximately the same price.

Drone’s app will have the same features that Viper’s has, says Bryan Park of Firstech, which owns Compustar. Drone’s app adds a feature: the ability to choose two additional parts of your vehicle to control, such as the rear defrost or the power windows, Park says. The app also comes with GPS, so you can check your vehicle’s location remotely. That comes in handy if your car is stolen or if you’ve forgotten where you parked it after a long vacation.

Compustar says Drone works via 3G, Wi-Fi, AT&T’s EDGE network and dronemobile.com—meaning that you can run it from a computer, too. Drone is compatible with Android, BlackBerry and Apple devices. Park says Drone’s developers are looking into making it compatible with smartphones that use the Windows 7 and Palm operating systems.

In the future, Park says, smartphone-based remote starters will be able to glean much more information from your vehicle’s computer than they do now. For example, you might be able to check your car’s tire pressure, fuel level or odometer from 2,000 miles away (a nifty trick if you’ve let someone borrow your car and you want to see how they’ve been treating it).

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