There's a certain degree of poetic justice in the notion of countering speedtrap technology with yet more technology. There's a long history of this, beginning in the fifties when traffic radar first appeared.
Drivers flashed their headlights to warn others of radar traps. Low tech, but it worked. In the mid-seventies the arrival of the CB radio created an instant community of smokey spotters. But that craze soon diminished, overwhelmed by mindless chatter and useless reports: "Yeah, good buddy, I definitely seen a cop over at the Dairy Queen day before yesterday." Something better clearly was needed.
That may have arrived, thanks to exponential growth in smartphone usage and Internet availability. That combination has been harnessed by Escort Live, offered as an add-on to most radar detectors from Escort and its subsidiary, BEL (Beltronics).
The Escort Live system's principal hardware is a special power cord with integral Bluetooth and some extra features. Two types are offered, one with a coiled SmartCord that plugs into a power point or cigarette lighter. The DirectWire version dispenses with the coiled cord and and links directly to the vehicle's electrical system. Its control module mounts remotely in the cockpit and is otherwise identical to that found on the SmartCord. Versions of both are available for iPhone and Android phones.
With the Escort Live power cord attached to the radar detector, the Escort Live app must be downloaded to the smartphone. (On iPhones it's available via the Apple iTunes app.) With app installed and running and detector powered up, the final step is Bluetooth pairing of phone and Escort Live power cord.
We followed this sequence using two iPhone models, a 3GS and 4S (it's backward-compatible from the latest iPhone 5 models), and a Samsung Android smartphone. Downloading was simple in each case; creating an account with user name and password took slightly longer Once logged in, Escort Live quickly spotted the smartphones and paired with them. This event was confirmed when the flashing blue LED turned solid. We were in business.
The Escort Live app includes a helpful demo to explain basic functions. Alerts, for example, are automatically broadcast in reaction to Ka-band radar encounters. Since Ka is the frequency used almost universally by state highway patrols and perhaps 60 percent of other police agencies, we're fine with auto-reporting.
Escort Live SmartCord control-display module verifies Bluetooth connection; mute and Report buttons can be used to control Escort Live functions.
Sharing X- and K-band alerts is the user's call, requiring a press of the Report button. X-band alerts are almost always generated by radar-controlled automatic door openers, occasionally by intrusion-alarm systems. K band is home to about 35,000 radar guns nationwide, along with about 20 times that many door openers.
K-band alerts also are caused by radar detectors, mainly Cobra and Whistler models. Increasingly they're from the Blind Spot Warning systems and Adaptive Cruise Control systems used on newer vehicles from Mercedes, Audi, Mazda, Hyundai and even Kia, among others.
Few neophytes can identify the source of an X- or K-band alert, leading to spurious Escort Live warnings as a result. Fortunately, the system monitors each alert to grade its validity. If no subsequent alerts to the same signal are received, the threat level is downgraded after about one hour and it's removed after another hour of inactivity.
We found the Escort Live user interface to be intuitive and easily mastered. Two screens are offered, Dashboard and Map; the graphics of both are attractive and coherently laid out. Most staffers preferred the map screen, finding the realtime distance-to-danger graphics more entertaining.
We first field-tested Escort Live in our First Annual, Every-Other-Year Radar Rally, an event from which we've not completely recovered. In a later test—under better-controlled conditions—we verified Escort Live's reporting accuracy and the timeliness of its alerts.
The Cobra iRadar system we tested in parallel fared rather poorly in comparison, generating an abundance of bogus alerts while missing too many real threats. Staffers were universally unimpressed by the iRadar app's graphics and user interface; when we tested its radar-detection abilities any vestige of enthusiasm disappeared entirely. In fairness, though, the Cobra system is far less expensive than the lowest-priced combination of Escort Live plus a BEL or Escort radar detector.
While testing we found that driving with Escort Live usually meant running the phone on vehicle power. With only Escort Live running and display brightness at its lowest setting, we routinely exhausted the fully-charged battery of our iPhone 4S in less than 2.5 hours, quicker if encountering frequent alerts or when other apps were running. Fortunately, the Escort Live SmartCord plug has a USB jack for this purpose.
The SmartCord's controls weren't always usable, being that the power point in many of our test vehicles was cleverly located inside the center console. Even assuming that the lid could be closed and latched—crushing the coiled cord in the process—the plug became unavailable. This placed total reliance on the smartphone, not troubling to the younger staffers but an imposition to some of the older crew members. The solution to this was found to be the Escort Live Direct-Wire version whose longer, straight power cord with remote control/display module links to the vehicle's electrical system instead, allowing greater mounting flexibility.
To no one's surprise we noted that on sunny days, viewing the smartphone screen while wearing sunglasses was a challenge. Glasses off, the elegant Escort Live user interface can be viewed and operated with reasonable alacrity. At night, living with the glare from a smartphone screen is another issue to be considered. Those already accustomed to driving while interacting with a smartphone are unlikely to be daunted by any of this.
A useful Escort Live feature is a log of alerts it automatically records on the phone. This makes it possible to retrace one's steps and view the specifics of each encounter—time/date stamp, location, radar frequency and other data.
The Escort Live system adds to non-GPS Escort and BEL radar detectors the same capabilities we find so compelling in the Escort Passport Max, Escort Passport 9500ix, Escort Passport 9500ci remote, BEL (Beltronics) Pro 500 and others in the corporate GPS radar detector family.
One other Escort radar detector comes with Escort Live already installed and was designed from the outset to be used in concert with the E/Live-smartphone combo. The Escort Passport Smart Radar has some other intriguing attributes, a compact size that allows alternative (stealthy) mounting locations and not least, higher performance than some of its pricier upmarket siblings. Two versions are made, accommodating both iPhone and Android smartphones.
All GPS-enabled models linked to Escort Live get the benefit of real-time warnings of enforcement activity. Priced at $99.95, it can be a cost-effective antidote to a speeding ticket, not mention high in entertainment value.