How do you say "10-4 Good buddy!" in 21st century America?
January 13, 2017 10:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to help a friend who is making a long-distance (~1500 miles) interstate move. I'll be driving his car, and he'll be driving a rental truck. I guess back in the 70's we'd get ourselves CB radios and be a "convoy". But it's now 2017 ...

... how do people keep in touch when driving long distances in multiple - in this case 2 - vehicles?

We've both got iPhones with unlimited cellphone minutes, so I guess we could simply call each other and keep the line open. But I'm wondering if there are any new wrinkles to this kind of thing - like, something where we can listen to music together, or listen to and discuss an audio book?

Or - has anyone ever set up an encrypted ad hoc vehicle to vehicle Wifi network on the road? Is it worth the hassle?

Pointers to interesting apps and / or advice and stories from people who've done this kind of thing would be much appreciated!
posted by doctor tough love to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would buy actual walkie talkies off Amazon. They cost under $70 for a set, and have a range of 2 miles (some are three.) There are FRS and UHF varieties.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:35 PM on January 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

I did this with walkie talkies driving across the country in convoy as DarlingBri suggested. It was quite fun and worked well.
posted by FireFountain at 12:03 AM on January 14, 2017

Be aware that walkie talkies are generally not hands free (not really sure how they could be considering they are half duplex) and most jurisdictions have laws prohibiting the use of electronic and/or hand held devices while driving. Your phones have the advantage of being hands free capable.
posted by Mitheral at 12:48 AM on January 14, 2017

doctor tough love: "But I'm wondering if there are any new wrinkles to this kind of thing - like, something where we can listen to music together"

Also you can't play music over CB or FRS radio bands.
posted by Mitheral at 12:50 AM on January 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

The FRS radios are significantly shorter range than most CBs with rooftop antennas, but they are convenient and cheap. But there's a reason CBs are still around and popular with long-haul truckers. They are good for exactly this situation.

Also most states' hands-free laws have specific exemptions for half-duplex PTT radios like CBs / amateur radios / etc. (E.g. California, New York.) YMMV.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:59 AM on January 14, 2017

There are also apps for this sort of thing; my friends and I sometimes use Zello, which works well as long as everyone has good cell signal. With Zello you could have folks from home or your destination participate in the conversation too.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:37 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

My family and I drove down from Montreal to Cape Cod a few years ago, in two separate cards. My brother and I were in one car (let us not even discuss the folly of that particular decision) while our parents and grandmother and dog were in another. We bought a cheapish pair of walkie-talkies to keep in touch during the trip because that way, we wouldn't have to use our Canadian-based cell phones and get obscene roaming charges.

Despite the fact that my mom had issues operating the walkie-talkie, this worked well enough for us that we used them both heading there and coming back. We did get out of range at one point (our dad took an exit we'd already passed so our grandmother could use the facilities at a restaurant), which caused a bit of panic, but my brother and I pulled over and waited for them to get back in range (checking every few minutes by trying to see if they could hear us on the walkie-talkies), which they eventually did.

Granted, there was always a passenger who could operate the walkie-talkies in either car (well, theoretically, at least), so I'm not sure how well this would work if you're both driving alone.

Hope that's a bit helpful!
posted by juliebug at 6:28 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Keep in mind that cell service may be sketchy to non-existent for long stretches of rural interstate. Most of I-10 west of San Antonio to El Paso, for instance, can find you with no reception between towns at all, which can be 30-45 minutes at a stretch.

When we travel in Mexico, good walkie talkies are the accepted mode of inter- car communication & have always done us well. Low tech, but trusted & reliable, for up to a mile or so in most circumstances.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:09 AM on January 14, 2017

This seems like a good excuse to go get your amateur radio operator license! It costs about $15 and you can do all the student/prep with online materials. It'll take a month or so to get your call sign after you complete the exam so maybe not possible in terms of time. Amateur radio transcievers, even a low end Baofeng handheld, will work better than FRS and don't care about the presence/absence of cellular service. You aren't permitted to play music or communicate about business stuff, but for coordination while on a long distance move, it seems like it would be fine (granted, I'm a relative newbie to that world too).
posted by Alterscape at 8:45 AM on January 14, 2017

Or you could use a walkie-talkie app like Voxer - it's free and even sounds like a walkie-talkie. It won't let you listen to music together (though you could create/share Spotify playlists for that) but it works really well.
posted by guster4lovers at 6:51 PM on January 14, 2017

N-thing walkie talkies.

Get a pair of basic (avoid 'kids' and inexplicably cheap) walkie talkies. If you're intending to drive in a 'convoy' you're probably always going to be within view of each other, range really isn't that much of a concern. Before you go, practice using it so you aren't fumbling with it on the road, and you'll be fine. The mics on those are typically pretty sensitive, and the speakers able to be loud enough to hear clearly with it sitting on the dash. We run a small radio system on our farm to keep vehicles in contact, (cell coverage still sucks) and while the distances are somewhat greater at times (~4-5 miles) it functions basically identically as a walkie talkie set, and it works perfectly.

Grab a pair of basic walkies and don't fret over the features too much, you're not going to need them if you're within sight of each other but just in different cars.

Additionally, having a set of walkies is super useful for places where cell coverage is overloaded or non-existent (outdoor concerts, festivals, camping) and possibly useful in a natural disaster or other event that takes down cell networks.
posted by neonrev at 11:35 AM on January 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you to everyone who answered!

We did the trip last week, and attempted to make do with cellphones. It did not work well. When I get some time, I want to look into what truckers use for vehicle-to-vehicle communication. I do not know for certain (but I get the sense that) many truckers have some very good Internet setups in their trucks. My sense is that a) vehicle-to-vehicle communications (for automobiles) could be a technology that takes off soon b) perhaps as an integral component of self-driving cars.
posted by doctor tough love at 6:32 PM on January 23, 2017

Trucks still use CB for this. It's cheap, universal, doesn't require any external infrastructure, and it's easy. And even in mountainous areas has sufficient range (especially with the large antennas you can fit to a truck).
posted by Mitheral at 7:12 PM on January 23, 2017

Trucks definitely still use CB (typ. Ch. 19). AFAIK there are no commonly-accepted IP-based vehicle-to-vehicle comms for trucks, outside perhaps of proprietary systems that might be used by a particular operations company, or someone using Skype over a WiFi hotspot -- although anecdotally I think most drivers use Skype from WiFi at fixed locations (truck stops, hotels).

There are some very neat V2V systems under development which use a mixture of cellular backhaul and direct communication, but they are mostly in the prototype / low-rate production phase right now.

But you're correct in the sense that this is something that is probably coming down the pipeline; the NHTSA is all over it as a sort of "bridge technology" between manually-controlled vehicles and true autonomous ones (and to enable certain benefits of autonomous vehicles). However their angle is definitely the system-to-system communication with the ability to actually send a message to another driver considered secondary or even undesirable. They are looking pretty specifically at systems with a ~300m range, using an allocation in the 5.9GHz band, so not much good for keeping in touch with a caravan, but good for telling your car that the car ahead of you is about to come to a screeching halt.

Anyway, lots of space there for solutions. However, WiFi and TCP, in particular, fare very poorly in this sort of role because they're too connection-oriented, and it's my view that building this sort of thing using cellular + WiFi (as Peloton is trying to do for trucks) won't work very well for cars. If you are interested in experimenting with this sort of thing -- and it's definitely a cool time to be playing around with it -- you may want to take a look at something like APRS, which is a (very simple) implementation of one:many broadcast used on 2m VHF radio, made by stripping down an existing 1980s Packet Radio spec. I've found that it is a good starting point for understanding more complex systems like P25 or SRW, which are probably closer to how I suspect the longer-distance V2V problem will actually be solved in practice.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:11 AM on January 24, 2017

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