Ford, GM and Dodge have done a great job designing their vehicles with mobile computing in
mind, as well as working closely with computer vendors to integrate their products. Safety, ergonomics, and functionality of the ‘mobile office’ now dominate the design and setup
of today’s front-line patrol vehicle.
The two key pieces of equipment that make or break the vehicle’s interior ‘mobile office’ setup are the equipment console between the two front seats and the mobile computing mount, i.e., the docking station. The computer mounting solution often dictates what you can use for a
console so be careful.
Gone are the days when a generic console and docking station could simply be transferred
between sedans, SUVs, or pickups in order to save some money. So, how exactly do you start
the process for selection, testing, and procurement of the right console and computer mount for your agency?
It starts with a dialogue between the fleet manager and the console and docking station vendors. Like the big three automakers, today there are a lot of vendors making some very good products, all having excellent functionality and ergonomic fit, while maintaining the highest safety standards possible.
Honestly, there really isn’t a single ‘Best console or best docking station.’ Today, they are all really well-designed and built with much tighter tolerances and a fit specifically intended for the OEM police vehicle. Years ago, you would see the same generic console used to fit a
Crown Victoria, a pickup truck, or an SUV. There is a lot more engineering today making the
entire mobile office a compatible ‘echo system’ that helps to improve officer efficiency while
There are two things you must decide on before you choose your console and computer docking station. First, must have the vehicle choice confirmed. Second, you must have the computer choice confirmed. Are you using a mixed fleet of SUVs, pickups, and sedans or are you staying with a single vehicle type?
Today, the consoles are specific to each vehicle type and should not be interchanged to save a couple of bucks. Have you or your IT department decided on a clamshell notebook or a tablet? Are you configuring for a one-person unit or two person units? It makes a difference where the computer will sit while the vehicle is in motion. Once those two variables are locked down, the console and docking configuration can begin.
A good upfit all starts with a solid foundation. The console is the mainstay of the police vehicle mobile office. Selecting the right one is likely your first challenge. There are typically two options with consoles. First, and most common, is the full-size console that goes direct from the dash to the back of the front seats. If you go this route and your vehicle has a prisoner partition, you will need to confirm that your console fits.
The full-size console also allows for the console vendors to add creature comforts like the
Always-important cup holders. Yes, contrary to what some people think, these are important in
Today’s console setup. The bottom line is this—officers are going to drink beverages inside the
So you can either prepare for it and provide a certain level of safe holders or risk the
coffee cup being placed in an unsupported, less-desirable spot that may put the electronics in
jeopardy. After one spill on your siren/light controller or Land Mobile Radio (LMR) head, you will want cup holders.
The larger console also allows for single or dual arm rests, which may seem trivial, but getting in
and out of a police vehicle with a computer while wearing a duty belt and body armor isn’t as
simple as it looks. Also typing on a computer with your body twisted in a vehicle seat requires
stabilization from something like a properly designed armrest. Ergonomics are important for both the driver and the passenger.
Also consider things like power points, USB charging outlets, secure cellphone holders or trays, secure notepads, portable radio battery chargers, flashlight charging docks, or any other small electronic device holder. The goal here is not to create a place to lay smaller electronics down to become projectiles in an impact but provide practical solutions for the realistic use the officers will have for the console. Everyone has a cellphone, and if not carried on their body, it is going to sit in the vehicle, especially when charging, so why not provide a secure holder or tray for it?
The larger console also offers the space for mini-printers if your agency uses mobile E-Ticketing
as part of your mobile computing solution. The glove box printer was something that some
agencies tried. But how exactly does the driver lean over across the console and docking station
and open the glove box? Try that while wearing body armor and a duty belt!
The second most common style is a short console or half console; these smaller ones are
sometimes used for detective or administrative vehicles. Keep in mind they usually hold less
equipment and may or may not have to hold a computer docking station. These shorter
consoles sometimes are used when the computer is a tablet style that’s flush mounted to the
dash of the vehicle.
There are some very well-engineered computer tablet mounting systems that keep the tablet screen tight against the dash while allowing full access to OEM dash-mounted vehicle controls such as HVAC and multimedia.
Once you have sorted all this out, you also need to know exactly what electronic equipment you are going to install inside the console and at what angle you want it displayed. Do you know
what brand the LMR is and is the radio head facing the driver or passenger or both? At what
elevation do you want the LMR head? Will it be hard to see if the computer is being used by either the driver or passenger? Are you adding a siren/light controller? Do you want to install the siren and light controller flat or on an angle? Where in the order, front to back, does it go? These are the questions that help design the layout of your console before you order.
The setup and integration with other interior components is important. What about if your
agency wants a long gun rack between the front seats? So now you have to configure the
console with the gun rack and the prisoner partition.
Safety is important to everyone so consideration should be given to the way the console is
fabricated. Folded sheet metal, aircraft aluminum, or polycarbonate are the most popular
materials in today’s consoles. Manufacturers do a pretty good job ensuring there are no sharp
corners, but some are designed better than others. It is not just sharp corners to airbags, it’s
sharp corners to the officers. If officers continually bang their elbows on something, the mobile office is not set up right.
Keeping the console low enough to ensure the officer’s hips aren’t impacted during a side-impact
collision is desirable. Lower is better at the point where hips would make contact with the
console. Also consider the seatbelt receiver connection, nothing worse than the officer
smashing their knuckles on the console every time they buckle up.
One key point when getting to this stage—nothing replaces input from the front-line users. When
we talk about field testing an ergonomic layout, it doesn’t mean having a test car set up in the
garage and having various people in street clothes rotate through sitting inside for a couple of minutes only to get out and say, “Looks good.” That kind of evaluation is a complete waste of time.
Value-added front-line field testing is taking a vehicle, setting it up, and putting the vehicle and equipment through the paces of real-world police field testing. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t simulate what happens on the street, neither can the test officers. These setups need to be tested in different lighting scenarios, different weather conditions, different officer configurations. If you’re a large department, setting up various test units and rotating them through different Divisions or Precincts is also valuable.
Docking Stations & Computer Mounting
On the topic of dash-mounted screens or OE screens integrated into the instrument panel (IP), do your homework. What looks good in a showroom setting may not be as functional as it might seem during operational front line policing. Does your agencies software provider allow for installation on a portrait (taller than wider) screen? Most policing software is designed for a 13-inch landscape (wider than taller) computer screen so formatting can be an issue.
When the screen is part of the dash or uptight to the dash is it low so that the officer's eyes have
to drop down so that their peripheral vision is reduced? What about the officers with shorter arms, when a tall officer with long legs has their seat all the way back can they touch the screen or do they have to hunch forward to use the touchscreen? Hunched forward and dropping your eyes to enter a license plate while driving is less desirable. The point being, that solution is not for everyone and before you commit to it make sure it’s a solution the front-line users will embrace.
Perhaps you have a detachable keyboard so the officer can get comfortable while
using the computer. So, how does that work for entering a license plate while driving? How is
that keyboard secured when not in use and is it ready for impact, especially a side impact, or is it
now another dangerous projectile inside the vehicle?
The setup and integration with other interior components is important. The most common police vehicle mobile computing solution is still the 13-inch-screen-sized clamshell laptop. There’s a simple reason for this: It works!
The computer docking station should only be chosen after the computer type is identified. Once you have the computer, then you can look at what’s out there to complement your console. The sage advice is to purchase the docking station from the same vendor you purchase the console. It’s usually the most cost-effective but also as far as integrating the two pieces, most of the work is usually already done for you.
Mounting the docking station is done either from the top of the console or from the floor of the
vehicle, often using front-seat mounting bolts. The idea of removing factory-installed seat bolts, and then re-torqueing the seat bolts to factory specs in the right sequence is somewhat concerning and for good reason. Do everything in the right order to avoid throwing a Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC).
Consider your setup. At what level do you want the computer to sit while the vehicle is in motion? Remember, dropping the officer’s eyes down low is risky even if you are airbag aware. When you are happy with that height, look around at what sightlines are affected; can you see the passenger outside rear mirror? Are you creating a front windshield blind spot for the driver to miss seeing pedestrians?
On the topic of airbags, there has been lots of discussion with some vendors calling
themselves ‘Airbag Certified’ or ‘Airbag Compliant.’ In reality, it is more like ‘Airbag Tolerant’ and don’t let anyone tell you differently. The automakers do a great job defining the airbag inflation zones, but if we completely stayed out of those zones, we could not provide the equipment required.
We do the best we can to provide the safest, ergonomically correct mobile office, but we can’t
dictate or control how that equipment is used in a vehicle that’s used for front-line policing. The
job is simply too dynamic and too unpredictable.
Choose something that gives your officers the best combination of both ergonomic fit and
functionality. Both the driver and passenger (if two-officer unit) should be able to move the
docking station forward and backward along with side-to-side twisting it into a position of
unsupported typing if required.
Consider providing a lock system that allows for removal should your agency have a mobile-report entry system that requires officers to remove the laptops for report entry in victims’
residences, restaurants, or a Community Police Office. Locks can be dock specific, user specific,
or agency specific.
The other issue with docking stations is the electronic features like wireless pass-through.
Wireless pass-through means you are allowing the cellular data to pass from the laptop through
the docking station and out of the vehicle to a rooftop-mounted antenna system. Relying on the
wireless cellular signal to leave the antenna on the computer and float around inside the vehicle
is not only unhealthy but significantly degrading the signal. The average wireless signal improvement with a rooftop or trunk-mounted antenna is 10dB.
Security of wireless data is very topical today. If you’re going to introduce security measures like
Two-factor authentication (that is something you know, like a password, and something you have, like a USB dongle or card), then you need to ensure the laptop USB ports are readily accessible, not requiring the officer to crawl under the docking station to install the USB dongle. If you have those USB ports exposed, do you need to remote mount them in order to maintain safety in an impact?
Security sometimes means no wireless accessories due to vulnerabilities, so with accessories
like printers, driver’s license scanners, and fingerprint scanners, predicting the required number of USB ports is critical.
At the end of the day, once you have decided on a system, get one set up and make sure it’s
been fully tested and evaluated by those who will be using it 24/7 in the front-line application.
Only then will your console and computer mounting solution be something that enhances
productivity while keeping officers safe.