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Payne: This is the latest feature car buyers want more than anything


Henry Payne   | The Detroit News
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Car buyers want dashboard cameras on their next new vehicle more than any other feature, even though only a couple of automakers have started to offer them.

In an age when cellphones and doorbell cameras are nearly ubiquitous, about 70% of car buyers in AutoPacific’s annual Future Attribute Demand Study say an on-dash video camera is a must-have for recording on-road incidents — or just keeping watch over their parked cars.

While aftermarket dash cams are available starting at about $100, Silicon Valley-based luxury automaker Tesla Inc. is the only manufacturer that builds them standard into their vehicles. Cadillac is rolling out its Surround Vision Recorder as a feature on its CT5, XT4, XT5, XT6 and coming 2021 Escalade. A Performance Data Recorder is ready for duty on upper trims of the Chevy Corvette and Camaro. 

I've been using my Tesla Model 3's Dashcam system on the road ... and when I'm away from the car.

In typical Tesla style, the Dashcam software was released as part of a model-wide over-the-air system update nearly two years ago. The software allows the cameras in Tesla's Autopilot system to capture video on a USB drive. Incremental upgrades followed with a significant update this year allowing owners to view video footage on the big 15-inch console screen.

“Features that promote safety, whether through improved driver visibility or collision avoidance, have been trending upward in AutoPacific’s Future Attribute Demand research for the past few years,” said Deborah Grieb, a research analyst for the automotive marketing research and product-consulting firm.

Comfort and convenience items have traditionally topped the list, and five years ago the top two choices were power driver's seats and heated seats.

This year, safety features like dash cams and air bags surged to the top of the list with convenience features such as head-up display and over-the-air software updates just behind.

“Consumers have experienced an influx of personal video in social and news media in recent years and are very familiar with the potential security benefits of camera footage,” Grieb said. “It’s really not surprising to see such high interest in an in-vehicle recording device.”

Dashcam uses four of my Model 3’s eight navigation cameras — front, rear and both sides — to monitor surroundings. With flash drive inserted, Dashcam will automatically turn on when I enter the car, its camera avatar glowing red at the top right of the console screen.

I have not been in any accidents, so I have no horrific video to share. But Tesla Dashcam videos of various incidents are popular on the web, drawing hundreds of thousands of views.

If desired, you can replay your recent journeys, the four cameras capturing multiple views. Did you see that sky-blue Chevy Bel Air ahead of me on Woodward? The Mustang I out-dragged at a stoplight? Want to see what it’s like to hustle through the twisted roads of Hell, Michigan?

Dashcam will record your every move for 60 minutes and then begin again, writing over previously footage.

The horn can be programmed to save the last 10 minutes of video. Which is logical, since hitting the horn usually means trouble or imminent contact. Honk! Incident saved to show the officer it wasn't your fault.

Or in the event you’ve witnessed something, tap the camera icon to save the clip.

For now, the main competition in dash cams is in the aftermarket. For $100-$400 (before installation), you can get some seriously capable dash cams from companies like Garmin, Blackvue and Vantrue that offer widescreen video and voice commands, and can be accessed via your mobile phone.

Dashboard cameras were a $3 billion industry in 2019, according to Grand View Research in San Francisco, with expected strong growth in North America over the next decade.

Tesla’s operator’s manual is in the screen (like everything else in this space-age car), so it’s easy to follow the detailed setup instructions.

When I'm away from the car, I put the Tesla into Sentry Mode, which keeps an eye on things when I can't. Unlike a doorbell camera, Tesla's Sentry Mode doesn't allow video footage to be viewed remotely via phone app. Videos can be watched later on the console screen, or by transferring them to a computer with a flash drive.

I particularly like using Sentry Mode in tight parking places, should someone open their door on me. 

Sentry Mode operates in three escalating states.

  • Standby: In its default state, Sentry Mode constantly monitors the area surrounding my Model 3 for possible security threats.
  • Alert: If Sentry Mode detects a threat — say, someone leaning on the vehicle or trying its door handle — Sentry Mode switches to the Alert state. Headlights flash and a big red digital eyeball appears on the center screen with the word “RECORDING” next to it to alert passersby.
  •  Alarm: An intrusive action such as someone breaking a window triggers Sentry Mode’s Alarm state. A security alarm activates and the audio system makes a loud sound. And at this point Sentry mode does engage your mobile phone, sending an alert to let you know there’s trouble. Tesla says the alarm will sound for 30 seconds.

Fortunately, Sentry Mode hasn’t had cause to disturb me.

But the videos it takes are interesting viewing when I return to the car. By touching the Dashcam icon and selecting "Launch Viewer," I can watch footage of activity around my car from each of the four cameras. I can pause and rewind.

Tesla’s Dashcam is on the cutting edge of consumer tastes. And the best part is, no assembly required.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.