Most modern public-safety and many commercial vehicles need in-vehicle computers in order for their users to operate efficiently and safely. Of all the topics we get asked about, in-vehicle computer mounts are certainly in the top 3.
Computer mounting systems consist of a couple major parts;
- the hardware to mount the system to the vehicle and
- the docking station/cradle
We generally find it easiest to work from the floor of the vehicle up.
One of the trickiest parts of the mounting systems is physically attaching the system to the vehicle. The system is generally made up of a base plate (usually this is vehicle-specific) then an assortment of poles and brackets to raise the system to an appropriate level for the user.
Most manufacturers have a wide variety of base plates for various vehicles. Most domestic trucks and SUVs are covered as well as a few sedans. However, if you have a vehicle that's not commonly used in the public safety and industrial market, you likely won't be able to find a vehicle-specific mounting plate for it. Gamber-Johnson has a variety of mounting system assemblies for various vehicles.
Once the base plate and pole assemblies have been chosen, move up to the tilt/swlvel/slide device, which we call a Motion Attachment, that the docking station bolts to. Generally speaking you'll want an attachment that provides at least some tilt and swivel that allows you to move the computer towards and away from you depending if you're stopped and working on the computer or you're driving. For most SUVs and pickup trucks, 6"-9" of slide is adequate. For fire apparatus and other large vehicles, you may need up to a 12" slide arm, depending on where you want the computer mounted.
It's critical to remember that cars and trucks are filled with airbags and that we need to keep the computers mounted outside of the airbag zones as much as possible. In most passenger vehicles it's physically impossible to mount a computer so that it's completely outside the airbag zones. However we strive to keep the computer and its mounting hardware out of the primary airbag zone. Rather than the airbag hitting the computer directly, having the edge of the airbag hitting the computer is the preferred option. Neither option is perfect so we're just trying to make the best out of a difficult situation.
A good docking station will be designed and tested to retain the computer in the event of an airbag strike. Some manufacturers use a spring-loaded plastic cradle. These are very dangerous; not only do they not lock for theft prevention, they will not retain the computer in a crash or airbag event, which will make the computer a projectile that can seriously injure vehicle occupants. We view these plastic spring-loaded docs as extremely dangerous and should never be installed in any vehicle.
Once all the floor plate, poles, and motion attachments have been selected, now it's time to think about the docking station. There are a couple options;
A "Cradle" is a mount that simply holds the computer in place. Usually these are universal and can be adjusted to the computer it's holding - whether that's a standard laptop, a tablet, or a ruggedized laptop. As mentioned above it's crucial that you get a sturdy cradle that locks (for theft prevention) and also can hold the computer in the case of an airbag strike. There are also a number of computer-specific cradles that make fitting easier.
- Much lower cost than a docking station
- Provides reasonable security
- Universal models can often be re-used on other computers, rather than being specific to one make/model
- No electronics such as charging or USB connections. If you want to charge your computer in the cradle you'll need to manually connect a power cable each time you put the computer in the cradle. This isn't a big hassle if you put the computer in the cradle once or twice during the day, but if you insert/remove it many times during the day this will quickly get frustrating. It also adds a lot of wear and tear to your computer's power and USB ports.
- No ability to connect to external antennas (see below)
- Must use an external power supply or an inverter/power supply combination.
A docking station (or just "dock") is always designed for a specific make/model of computer. The dock not only holds and locks the computer but it also provides connections that mate with the computer's docking connector. These connections provide power, peripheral connection, and antenna connection (see below) all in one motion. These docking stations are made only for fully- and semi-rugged computers.
- Full connections such as power, peripheral, and antenna
- Easy to dock/undock without manually plugging in any cables
- Designed to work with rugged computer such as the Toughbooks
- Reduces wear on ports vs. manual plug-in style connections
- Integrated (or attached) power supply that is tolerant to vehicle power systems
- Significantly more expensive than a cradle (most docks run in the $900-$1200 range vs. a cradle at about $350).
- Specific to one make/model of computer. If you upgrade your computer to a different model in the future, you'll need to buy a new docking station to mate with the new computer.
This is one topic that almost no one considers when selecting a computing device, but it can make or break the success of your project.
With many computers/tablets having GPS and cellular modems embedded into them, it’s really handy because you can walk around pretty much anywhere and have GPS and data connectivity. However, remember that when you have the computer mounted in a vehicle, it’s underneath the metal roof of your vehicle, so GPS reception will suffer.
Also, your cell data reception level will drop dramatically because your computer (and its internal antenna) are now inside what’s essentially a metal box (your vehicle). The only way around this is to connect the internal GPS and cell data modems in the tablet to antennas that are mounted on the roof of your vehicle.
With a full docking station and an industrial computer, the computer has connectors on it that mate up with the docking station’s connectors. Then, on the back of the docking station, there are antenna connectors that you can connect the roof-top antennas to. This effectively routes the computer's internal GPS and cell antennas through the dock and to the roof. We call this “RF Passthrough” (RF = radio frequency). The dock will have the same number of RF ports as the computer. Most have 2 ports (one for GPS and one for cellular data) but some have 3, with the third one being for Wifi.
Docks with RF passthru capability usually have an "internal" and "external" switches on them somewhere. If you have rooftop antennas connected the dock then make sure the switch is in the "external" position so that the computer will use these external antennas. If you don't have external antennas connected then ensure the switch is set to "internal", otherwise the cell data modem will try to route power to a non-existent antenna, which will eventually cause the modem to burn out.
Let's face it; mounting a computer in a car isn't an ideal situation in any respect. We have airbags to deal with, often a front-seat passenger, considerations for theft prevention, crash-injury management, and then after all that...ergonomics.
We need to try to make the computer as comfortable to use as possible, but we have to work within the constraints of the other equipment (factory consoles, aftermarket parts, etc.) in the vehicle. As a general rule we'd like to allow enough movement via the motion attachment to get the computer out of the driver's area when the vehicle is in motion, but then allow the driver to move the computer closer to them when the vehicle is stopped.
One thing to consider is how much you're actually going to be typing. Police Departments tend to type a lot - long reports and copious amounts of details. Fire users, on the other hand, generally just use "status" buttons on their screens: En Route, At Scene, etc. . If you are not typing on your computer much (or at all) then ergonomics isn't very important. But, if you type a lot, paying attention to where the computer sits relative to the driver can make a world of difference.
The first thing to consider is Tilt. Having a motion attachment that tilts will make typing a LOT easier. While a flat keyboard is fine if the keyboard is at the level of your elbows, having a computer that low down in a vehicle is extremely rare. Most in-vehicle computers sit about 6-12" higher than a desktop keyboard, so allowing the computer's keyboard to tilt is an important feature.
The ability for the computer to slide or swivel so it's closer to the driver is important as well Typing on a keyboard that is too far away from you will quickly lead to upper back strain and discomfort.
Ensure the computer is easy to move away from the driver. If it's a difficult process then it simply won't happen. We also want to ensure the mounting system doesn't allow TOO much movement lest the computer assembly winds up in front of the passenger-side airbag.
Lastly, keep the computer mount as low as you can while still clearing the console between the seats. This allows a more natural typing position but also means that the raised screen doesn't block the passenger-side mirror or window. While most organizations' policies require the screen to be folded down while the car is in motion, we rarely see compliance to that policy in real-life situations. Maintaining clear line of sight out the passenger side of the vehicle (windshield, side mirror, side window) are important in any size vehicle; from fire apparatus to a small sedan.
Generally computer mounts aren't too tricky once you understand the terminology and the things to consider.
Please contact us if we can assist you with your in-vehicle computer mounting projects.