Thursday, November 20, 2014

Speed Demons

Which radar detector is quickest to spot police radar?

Instant-on radar can easily clock speeders in less than one second.
Detector designers walk a tightrope, balancing speedy response with accuracy. A detector with a hair trigger may be the first to alert, but with little time to process a signal, it often gets it wrong. The result is a false alarm.

But a too-leisurely response also imposes risks. This is because modern police radar with DSP (digital signal processing) is commonly used in instant-on mode to evade detectors. It's kept on standby, not transmitting a signal. When a target of interest appears, with a button-press the officer can check its speed and return to standby mode, all in less than one second.

An MPH Industries radar used in POP mode is even quicker, accomplishing this in less than 0.07 second. By design, target speeds in POP mode can't be locked and MPH wisely cautions officers against taking enforcement action based on these snapshots.

That's because there's no time to establish a target's tracking history, required by radar case law to help reduce incorrect target identification—and bad tickets. Tracking history in moving mode—police vehicle and target both rolling—has more importance.   Added variables, particularly when traffic is heavy, increase the possibility that the officer unknowingly is eying a vehicle different than the one producing his radar's target speed.

Trouble is, lazy officers tend to skip the tracking history. Many trigger the radar, glance at the speed, then return to standby mode.  Many also shut off the radar's audio Doppler, a vital tool to make certain that both radar and officer are looking at the same vehicle.  Officers like this are the ones you'll want to avoid.

Most detector manufacturers have slowed response to cut false alarms, likewise making POP mode a user-selectable menu option. I wondered how many instant-on radar signals are being missed as a result.

To find out, I gathered up six detectors from four manufacturers. All were tested in Highway mode in their default settings.

Two radars were used: a Stalker Dual Ka-band and a Decatur Genesis II K-band radar, both operated in stationary mode. With a stopwatch and using the instant-on remote control, I first established the minimum signal duration each detector required before it would process a signal and sound an alert every time.

With that baseline established, I repeated the test 20 times for each detector on each band.  The average of each set was then calculated.
Quickest of the group was the Whistler CR75; it alerted reliably to K-band radar signals of 0.35 second duration and Ka-band signals at least 0.41 second long. The Cobra SPX 6700 was almost as fast.
The second-quickest in response was the Escort RedlineXR: 0.45 and 0.52 second, on K and Ka, respectively. (A standard Redline takes twice that long to respond to either band.)
The Escort Passport Max ignored K-band signals that lasted an average of less than 1.42 seconds. It was faster on Ka band though, alerting to signals averaging 0.68 second in duration.

The jury's out on which better protects against K band threats. BEL and Escort detectors are likely to miss some instant-on radar signals. On the upside, they will bark fewer K-band false alarms.

Cobra and Whistler radar detectors have less sensitivity than the pricier Escort and BEL models, imposing less of a penalty for quicker response.

In the end, user experience will dictate which is the better strategy. The bottom line is a tradeoff between fewer false alarms and better protection from instant-on radar.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Relief From K-band False Alarms?

SpeedInfo solar-powered traffic-monitoring radar
If you're experiencing more K-band radar false alarms lately you're not alone. Increasingly, radar detector false alarms are being caused by the radar used by some traffic-flow monitoring systems.

Pole-mounted along a roadway, often at one-mile intervals, these measure and send real-time data on traffic volume and speed to transportation command centers. Radar detector owners will get a K-band alert whenever a transmitter is approached, often from hundreds of yards away.

Escort and BEL GPS-enabled radar detectors can lock out these signals. Other Escort and BEL models without GPS will do likewise when used with Escort Live.

Yet comparatively few radar detector manufacturers claim to offer a firmware-based solution for their non-GPS models. One exception, Escort, devised TSR (TSR Signal Ranking software) for Escort and subsidiary BEL (Beltronics) radar detectors. And some Whistler models—the Whistler CR90 and Whistler CR85 included—offer TFSR, said to achieve the same purpose.

But can TSR or TFSR really eliminate these K-band nuisance alerts? To find out, we traveled to Denver, Colorado, which has several metro freeways lined with nearly 150 radar sensors from Speedinfo. We used an Escort Redline XR with TSR and a Whistler CR90 with TFSR. Our test route was the bustling I-25 corridor, beginning at Arapahoe Road in southern metro Denver and ending 24 miles later at the city of Northglenn.

On the first run we set the Escort Redline XR to Auto-sensitivity mode, with TSR turned off. Over the next 24 miles it dutifully alerted to 12 SpeedInfo K-band transmitters lining the northbound traffic lanes, and we noted their locations.

For the second run we left the Escort Redline XR's settings unchanged except for turning on the TSR function. This time the Escort Redline XR ignored all of the SpeedInfo K-band transmitters.

Next we repeated the exercise with the Whistler CR90. With TFSR switched off, it alerted to the same SpeedInfo transmitters as had the Escort Redline XR. On the next run, this time with TFSR engaged, it filtered out all of the transmitters and stayed silent.

This should come as good news to anyone packing a radar detector in Denver, not to mention other areas where radar-based traffic-monitoring technology is used.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Escort Passport Max Firmware 1.6 Test

A test yesterday of the updated Escort Passport Max was halted when a hot air balloon skimmed over my car and collapsed onto the road in front of me.

Fortunately, the winds were calm and no damage was inflicted on balloon or passengers. At length, it was bundled onto a trailer and towed from the scene.

With testing resumed, I was able to quantify any performance differences wrought by firmware rev 1.6. Also tested were two new Escort Redlines. One was tested with default settings, same as the Escort Max.

The other Escort Redline was configured for quicker response and fewer false alarms. Among other tweaks, some Ka-band segments were optimized and user preferences tailored for maximum performance. Results from that test will be posted soon.

All three radar detectors were performance-tested at the same site on successive days. Other than the date, there were no changes—it was the same vehicle and procedure, same radar, identical radar antenna alignment—even the weather and time of day remained the same. Eliminating these variables allows a meaningful comparison of the Escort Passport Max's two firmware versions.

For the Escort Max test, GPS was disabled on the Escort to eliminate any possibility of speed-variable sensitivity influencing the results. All three radar detectors were tested in Highway mode. Four runs were made against each radar and the results averaged.

Compared to the Escort Passport Max with firmware rev 1.5, I saw no statistically significant difference in performance with firmware rev 1.6. Also unchanged is its susceptibility to the local oscillators of other radar detectors. Second- and third-order harmonics from these produce K- and Ka-band alerts in the Max. No radar detector is immune to this phenomenon, but some fare better than others. For example, the Redline showed significantly higher resistance to this type of interference although it's noticeably more sensitive on K band.

Firmware revisions are issued for a variety of reasons and it’s quite possible that we’ll notice changes in the Max’s behavior. To that end we’re conducting an urban false-alarm test, checking its resistance to static radar sources.

We’re also measuring its responsiveness, the speed at which it reacts to radar. The earlier Max firmware was very quick to spot Ka-band radar—under 0.65 second on average. But it was painfully slow on K band, averaging 2.42 seconds. Disabling TSR shaved off one second but regardless, it can be assumed that some short-duration K-band signals would go unnoticed.

Barring any more hot air balloon crashes, I expect to have the other test results available soon.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Escort Passport Max review

A bit of marketing finesse was needed for the rollout of the Escort Passport Max. Positioning the newcomer was a delicate task; very profitable models already capped each of the company's two key product segments. The flagship Escort Passport 9500ix uses GPS to eliminate false alarms while protecting from red light and speed cameras. The Escort Redline is non-GPS, trading instead on its prodigious radar performance.

The Escort Passport Max aims to straddle both segments. It’s priced above its siblings, the lofty tariff justified by GPS and an undefined attribute nebulously called "HD performance".

The challenge was to establish a new segment for the Max but without cannibalizing too many sales from the Escort Passport 9500ix or Escort Redline.

The Escort ad copy hints at high performance but carefully avoids specifics.  Instead of clobbering both predecessors on sensitivity (radar warning range), the Escort Passport Max conceivably could be tuned to discreetly fall in between the 9500ix and Redline. I elected to wait before a test, racking up 1,500 miles with an early-production Max while giving Escort time to make any tweaks.

Once its firmware was finalized and the production lines were humming, I took a pair of Escort Passport Max units to our desert test site to measure performance. For comparison I took along a Passport 9500ix and an Escort Redline.

Judging from the results, my wait was worthwhile. And the test dispelled any speculation about whether the Max has competitive performance. See the review and test results to learn the truth about the Escort Max.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Laser Speed Enforcement

Laser Ally speed laser
Not to sound alarming, but there's been a flurry of activity on the speed-enforcement front lately--and it's all bad news. The topic: lasers.

Speed lasers have been around since 1991 but until recent years their high price compared to radar has limited the number in service. But Moore's law also applies to the speed-measurement industry. As laser technology improves and component prices drop, laser prices fall and performance amps-up in unison. The number in service also increases dramatically.

First-generation lasers cost four grand and, save for the LTI 20-20, were unimpressive in performance. In a 1992 test, for instance, we found that we could jam a Kustom Signals Pro Laser I by turning on the target car's high beam headlights.

Two decades tend to make a difference, though, and the best of the new lasers have an attribute that makes them particularly lethal: anti-jamming software. The Laser Ally, arguably the best-designed speed laser ever, can't be detected, much less jammed, by any of today's radar/laser detectors, regardless of price.

It's also about one-third less expensive than its 1991 forebears, making it far more affordable for cash-strapped law enforcement departments. But it's not the only new player on the scene. 

At last fall's IACP—the International Association of Chiefs of Police convention, the cops' equivalent to Comdex or CES (Consumer Electronics Show)—I tried out six new laser guns from four manufacturers. Four were retail-priced under two grand. More are on the way.

The low-priced newbies have fewer features than their upmarket big brothers and their maximum target range is purposely clipped to 2,000 feet, to avoid cannibalizing sales. But this matters little if you're on the receiving end of their laser beams.

We've been testing these newcomers for the past year, including their reaction to laser jammers from Blinder, Escort, K40 and Laser Interceptor. The results have been mixed, but the best of these countermeasures are remarkably effective. When testing concludes soon we'll have the results and videos on Expect some surprises.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Radar detector performance tips

Z06 Corvette in Arrest-Me-Red hue is a ticket magnet
Track Day events offer car club members the chance to operate a daily-driven car on a race track at competition speeds. It''s one of the few opportunities many will have to drive the car at its limits without risking a ticket.

The BMW Car Club of America and the Porsche Club of America in particular hold well-attended events. The latter is particularly open-minded, its South Texas Region chapter even allowing me to compete in an Italian-built DeTomaso Pantera in club events at the former Texas World Speedway outside College Station. Hardly anybody whined about getting beaten by a Ford-engined sports car either.

The degree of driving talent displayed on a Track Day ranges from superb to sub-zero, most participants falling somewhere in between. But even the hopeless ones generally recognize the value of professional-grade training, many seeking guidance from their more gifted compatriots.

Not so when it comes to using a radar detector. On this subject, it would seem, everybody's an expert, many Porsche and BMW drivers included. This trait is most notable among those new to high-end detectors, particularly ones who have just laid out big bucks for models like the Escort Passport 9500ci, a remote (built-in) system that includes laser jammers.

Escort Passport 9500ci display
The Escort 9500CI's discreet components are designed to escape notice, both from thieves and curious lawmen. In the cockpit, the owner can opt to have a bi-color LED flush-mounted in a panel, sometimes in the tach/speedo cluster, using this in lieu of the text display.

To the customer I diligently explain the major advantages of using the display's information-delivery capability. It will show a Ka-band signal's digital frequency, for instance, or track up to nine separate threats simultaneously, with information about each. And so on.

"Forget about it, just hide everything," is a common response. Out of sight, out of mind. I later hear from a few, usually complaining about getting nailed again, most often by radar.

This comes as no surprise. Just as buying a Ferrari doesn't automatically elevate one's driving talent to Formula One-caliber, neither does packing a radar detector transform a driver into a ticket-avoiding phenomenon. But some expert guidance on the subject can certainly help.

For this reason we developed model-specific Performance Tips guides for the most popular Escort and BEL radar detectors. Buy an Escort Passport 9500ix, for instance, and it comes with a free copy of Escort 9500ix Performance Tips.

Those who prefer to use their Escort 9500ix in plug-and-play mode won't care. But drivers really serious about avoiding speeding tickets will read it—and use the information to significantly up the level of protection delivered by their detector.

For example, California drivers can set the user preferences so they'll know at a glance if a Ka-band alert is in reaction to a Cobra radar detector in a passing car—or the Stalker radar universally employed by the California Highway Patrol. Big difference.

There's more, but you get the idea. And in the hunter-versus-prey competition between law enforcement and drivers, knowledge like this can pay off handsomely.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Driven to distraction by technology

Hella Lane-Change Assistant
There's usually a hidden downside to new technology. When Hella Corp. unveiled its Lane-Change Assistant system for automakers, Audi grabbed it immediately, introducing it as Side Assist on the 2007 Q7. Competing systems arrived soon after and within a few years,  Blind Spot Warning (BSW) technology was appearing in dozens of production vehicles from several car companies.

All perform the same function, warning drivers when a lane-change maneuver is ill-advised. Some designs use cameras; one employs lasers, a few others ultrasonics to scan adjacent lanes. The Hella system uses radar instead. Microwave radar is less affected  than vision-, laser- or sonar-based designs by blowing dust, rain and other environmental factors.

There is one notable downside, however: Hella chose the identical 24-Gigahertz K-band radar frequency used by police radar guns. Any radar detector confronted by, say, the Side Assist of an Audi A7, will scream a warning in response. Although the signal is low-powered, in tests we found that a sensitive radar detector will spot that Audi BSW from up to 1,000 feet away. Follow one in traffic and the alerts are unending.

Mercedes created yet more microwave pollution by incorporating similar K-band radar into its Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control (ACC) system. Accompanied by a separate 76-GHz radar, used for long-range distance measuring and speed computation, the K-band radar in Distronic Plus will also drive a detector nuts
Culprit: Hella K-band radar
If that weren't enough, roadway traffic-flow sensors monitoring vehicle density and speeds also began using K-band radar. Mounted on poles at regular intervals, these gadgets provide realtime traffic data via wireless links to city and state transportation departments. Drive north from Denver on I-25, for example, and expect  a K-band alert every mile or so for an eternity. Similar early systems were first installed on I-10 west of San Bernardino (CA) and and they're growing in number nationwide.

How to deal with this onslaught of spurious signals? Escort created a feature dubbed TSR—Traffic Signal Rejection—that counters traffic sensors. Found in most Escort and BEL models, we've tested TSR and it works. But what about those other K-band problem signals?
Escort 9500ci with laser jammers on Lamborghini

The only partial fix we've identified to date is found in a couple of remote models, also from Escort.  These are the Passport 9500ci and its clone from sister company Beltronics, the BEL STiR Plus.

There's no magic bullet incorporated into either detector. But their combination of GPS, a radar antenna tucked away in the grille area and some very smart signal processing does result in fewer false alarms, particularly when installed in an Audi.

These remote models enjoy more traditional virtues like stupendous radar range, a near-absence of false alarms, red-light camera protection, standard laser jammers and by virtue of being built-in, immunity from theft and official scrutiny. They're pricey but worth it, the reason why I've got one of each installed in my daily drivers.

I've reviewed these two detectors separately in past stories; now there's a new, condensed review covering both models. Even if you're not yet pestered with microwave-based safety gadgets, both detectors offer some compelling technology of their own.