I have been using inexpensive action cameras (i.e. GoPro clones) for years as dashcams on my urban commute and cargo ebikes. Going DIY, I get much higher video quality and spend a lot less money. Once you figure out how to set them up, its an easy process.
I started doing this after I was run down (a T-bone SMIDSY) by a negligent driver in 2017. The police report worked hard to blame the victim (me) for traveling at low speed (about 15 mph in a 40 zone), with three headlights on, in the designated on-road bike lane. I even made eye contact with the driver while she stopped before pulling out and into me. I found out the hard way the driver was looking through me, not at me.
At least the police report conceded the driver was the cause of the accident – and tried to take it back a bit by stating that the safe speed for a bicycle “may have been 3 mph”. Yes, thats right… three.
Unfortunately, experienced urban cyclists will recognize the problem. Motorists often get every benefit of the doubt when they run down a cyclist, regardless of the consequences of the motorist’s inattention. I was carted off in an ambulance.
Cyclists Need an Irrefutable Witness
Over the years, I have learned a few things about what kind of camera is well suited to this job, how to best install it, and how to configure it so it is as easy as possible to use on a routine basis. During a recent online discussion on the subject, it occurred to me this would be a good topic to lay out for people all in one piece.
Lets make a centralized parts list right off the bat, so its easy to come back to. We'll get into what each item is and why it is on the list further on:
- Akaso V50x, Native 4k 30 fps Action Camera
- Extra waterproof case for V50x camera (optional)
- SanDisk Extreme Pro Micro SD card
- Bicycle Saddle Rail (rear-facing) Mount
- Adjustable Handlebar (front-facing) Mount
- Portable USB Power Bank (optional. Low cost version)
- Portable USB Power Bank (optional. High quality version)
- Right-angle USB short extensions (optional)
- Right-angle USB long extensions (optional)
What About External Perception?
As alluded to in the lede above, having visible cameras does more than just preserve an evidence record (I tell people who ask about them – only half jokingly – they are there to tell the police who killed me).
Something I have experienced has been echoed to me informally by other cyclists: People treat them differently when the camera is there, blinking its little red “I’m on” light. Drivers seem to behave with a bit more civility. Is this a scientific observation? Nope. Is it a universal benefit? Nope. But it does look as if, when people know that Little Brother is watching, they are less inclined to brush you back or run you off the road.
Once I realized my own perception of that phenomenon was not unique, I decided to supplement front cameras with a second, rear-facing one. Yes I want to get video of an oncoming vehicle that may do a bad thing. But even more so, I want that driver to maybe see the camera and … sober up a little?
Worth mentioning: Cameras like this have been used for years by motorcyclists, and I think motorists have grown somewhat used to them as a result. I have yet to see a volatile reaction by anyone getting mad I am recording them as they go by.
However, I do respect others’ privacy, and I will not be showing any stills taken from my cameras that show clear license plate views (which is the high standard we are going for here).
What About Turnkey Products?
Turnkey solutions exist for cyclists right now. Perhaps the original is the Cycliq Fly. One look at the price for front and rear cameras may give you pause. But if protection is afforded, price is secondary.
Instead, when evaluating them dig a little deeper at the camera resolution. The front camera provides a best resolution of 4K @ 24 fps, with 6-axis electronic image stabilization. That is pretty good but – in 2023 – unremarkable. The rear Fly6 on the other hand gives you a 135-degree view at a resolution of either FHD (1080p at 30fps) or HD (720p at 60fps). Their rear camera provides no mechanical or electronic image stabilization.
The Cycliq product also incorporates an app, and each version also incorporates a light.
Garmin makes a bike camera system as well. Its rear-facing Varia is a combination of rear light, camera and actual radar. The radar senses an approaching auto and warns you of its approach. Rider discussions I have seen report the radar really works. Insofar as the camera is concerned, its best resolution is 1080P @ 30 fps. There is no front camera option.
Bottom line: A turnkey solution for both front and rear is going to cost rather a lot of money. It may or may not provide a video solution that allows resolution and stability that will capture a legible license plate. I consider that license plate essential as it may belong to a vehicle that left the scene long before you are carted off in an ambulance.
In my own personal experience, I have tested the video resolutions and frame rates described above on cameras and consider them failures in the license plate reading game. They will be fine for capturing what happened, but if the car leaves the scene, law enforcement officials won’t be able to identify the vehicle from the plate number.
What About DIY?
It turns out ‘generic’ action cameras have all the features you need to make a dashcam. You just have to know how to set it up, which is not difficult. They will give you a highly detailed, electronically-stabilized screen resolution (you cannot take stabilization in all resolutions for granted and have to carefully review camera specs to confirm this).
I have bought a number of cameras over the years. Some have been expensive (GoPro), some have been really cheap (low end Chinese GoPro clones) and some not so cheap. I will skip any further mention of that learning experience and just jump right to the one that works best for me now – in 2023.
The Akaso V50X Action Camera
- In 2023 as I write this, this model has been around for awhile. I bought my first one in early 2021. So it has a feature set that is not state-of-the-art.
- In 2023 as I write this, this model has been around for awhile. That means it is not a premium priced product. I bought my most recent two on sale for US$79.99 each. MSRP is US$99.99.
- The camera uses a native 4k resolution with a native 30fps frame rate. There are other rates available going up to 60 fps, but in side-by-side testing, the 4k/30fps with image stabilization enabled gives the best license plate readings. Note I said ‘native’ above. That means there is no on-board interpolation to up- or down-rate the image. Since ‘interpolation’ means ‘adjustment’ and ‘approximation’, native processing modes should give the camera’s cleanest end result.
- No proprietary software is needed to play or process the video. I use the movie software included with Microsoft Windows 10 to view and edit the files.
- Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) differs in effectiveness from brand to brand. EIS on the V50X is very effective. I almost can’t see how it could work better. I have tested it on potholes and curbs and the video remains steady.
- Settings are available to loop record, which is a critical feature for a dashcam application. The camera records in short time-loop intervals (shorter is better… we’ll discuss why later), then starts another file. When the SD Card storage fills up, it records over the oldest files, so you never have to flush it clean when it fills up.
- Settings are available to turn the camera on as soon as it receives power. A driving mode makes camera startup and recording automatic, although I prefer not to use it.
- Out of the box, the V50x comes with a zillion accessories. Way more than you will ever use. The one accessory that is critical is included: the waterproof scuba box (not needed for waterproofing… we’ll get into that later). You can buy a second box cheap on Amazon to share a camera across multiple bikes.
- Its got a slightly bigger battery than other models in the Akaso line (which I also own). We’ll discuss a setup that bypasses the battery later.
- Having had a V50x in service since 2021, and other Akaso cameras since before then, I have found the brand produces a reliable product.
A shorter version of the above is:
“the V50x is cheap, durable and does everything you need for a bicycle dashcam.“
SanDisk Extreme Pro Micro SD Card
You need this for the camera to store its video files. No camera comes with them and they have to be purchased separately. With a 200 mbps write speed, this is the fastest card you can get your hands on right now. You need big write speed to support the 4k/30fps mode on the camera. And since Micro SD cards are cheap, a relatively gigantic 128GB card is only US$20.
According to the instruction manual, the V50x camera only officially supports 64GB cards, but the manual also says some 128GB cards will work. This one works. I use them due to the fast write speed, not the storage size.
The Front Mount
I’ve tried a few mounts and, once I settled on this one, have stuck with it for years across several bikes. It is all alloy, no plastic, and mounts rock solid on the bars. Over time it does not loosen up, and keeps the camera in place regardless of bumps and bonks as I go down the road.
It does rotate on its horizontal axis by design, but there is a strong detent in place so it can’t happen accidentally. This rotation lets you put the same mount at different positions on a swept-back bar and it still points straight forward.
The Rear Mount
I have only recently started doing rear cameras and this mount was exactly what I needed to make it happen. It is all aluminum with stainless bolts, and mounts solidly to the saddle rails. It doesn’t move over time. Its easy to mount the camera to its GoPro-compatible mount.
This mount does make it necessary to mount the camera upside-down, but all of the video-editing software I have ever used – and I always use something simple and free with minimal features – allows you to easily flip the video right side up. The time stamp onscreen will be upside down but we aren’t trying to be Cecil B. DeMille here … its just a dashcam video.
The (Optional) Power Pack
There are a few ways to power your DIY dashcam solution. One way is to just use the in-camera battery. Another is to run a little USB cable from the camera to your ebike display’s USB port. That will give you a constant power supply that never runs out. If your display does not have a USB port available, the next best step is to fudge it and use a USB power bank. I have found it is much more convenient to use a big power bank and charge it, say, once weekly, than it is to use the in-camera battery that is going to need recharging after every single ride. I’m including links to two different – and big – power banks.
I do not use power banks this big to run just my camera. These banks have three USB outlets. I use all three – two to power my LED COB light banks and one to power one of my two cameras. I have a USB display powering the other. So for a more normal bike, one such power bank could power two cameras no problem for a week of long, daily commutes. A much smaller power bank would probably be fine, too; especially if handlebar bag space is at a premium.
I am linking to one Anker power pack that is a top quality item and priced accordingly. I’m also linking to one much cheaper and – on paper at least – is just as capable and 1/3 the price. I can’t be sure if it is as reliable as the Anker but for twenty bucks versus almost seventy… I figured it was worth a shot. I have only been using it for a few weeks so far.
Misc USB Cables
There are a half-dozen different ways to wire these things up. If you are doing a direct wire to a power bank or display on a rear camera, a long-ish USB cable with a right-angle plug at the camera side is a good choice. If doing a front camera mounted to the bars and tied to the USB plug on your handlebar display, you can get away with using the short freebie cable that comes with the camera. If things are lined up just wrong on your display, you may want to use a short 45-degree USB extension. We’ll go over a few variations …
… when we tackle camera installation and configuration in the next installment. 🙂