Here’s How To Make The Trailer Taillight Dreams Of A Probably Dead Guy Come True With Modern Tech

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Remember last week when I was going nuts about some drawing of an almost-Ford Maverick I saw in a 1968 issue of Popular Science? Of course you do, it was probably life-changing for you. Well, something else in that issue caught my attention, and, as a result of a pledge I made to the Freemasons decades ago, I must share it with you. This particular something is part of the PopSci recurring “I’d like to see them make…” feature, and features taillights. So you know it’s a Big Deal. Let’s dig in.

In case you’re somehow unfamiliar with the irregular “I’d Like To See Them Make…” feature, it was basically a place in the magazine where readers would write in with some general idea for an invention, and then an illustrator would draw a quick little cartoon of it, and everyone would see these and ponder the implications of a world with flavored tongue depressors or rubber andirons or whatever.

Often, though, these ideas would be quite prescient; a surprising number of now common automotive (tire pressure monitors on dash, adjustable steering wheels, keyless entry, etc.) and technological (video conferencing, doorbell cameras, etc.) advancements were predicted on those pages:

Popsci Liketosee1

The suggestion I’m interested in now, though, wasn’t so fortunate to be made real, though I think there is a valid need that’s being addressed. It’s this one:

Popsci Extlight1

Extendible trailer lights! Yes, J.H. Schmidt was fucking done with having to wire up trailer lights for whatever car he may have been using to tow his unknown burden, and he longed for a better way.

So, out of J.H.’s fruitful imagination came a vision: a car with a duplicate set of taillights that could be removed from their housings in the car’s rear and, via long, extendible wires, be mounted on the rear of the trailer being towed.

Conceptually, it’s not a bad idea: Getting your car wired for trailer lights, and making sure the trailer is properly wired as well can be a pain, especially if you find yourself towing a number of different trailers. I guess?

Maybe this isn’t exactly a cure for cancer, but it was enough to get this, let’s be honest, most likely-currently-dead person thinking, which in turn got me, a future most likely-currently-dead person thinking. I was thinking about the flaws in J.H.’s plan, which mostly revolve around the amount of wire needed.

Would that wire be stored on some kind of spring-loaded reel inside the car’s fenders? Would it just be sort of draped along the sides of the trailer? Would you have to secure it? Would it be likely to get frayed and break? The wires are the Achilles’ heel here, but I think this is one place where modern technology could really make this idea practical.

How? Via the magic of rechargeable batteries and Bluetooth!Popsci Btdiag


[Editor’s Note: Jason, why are we even doing this exercise? Modern trailers tend to have lights built in, and they hook up to a standard connector that you can easily install into most cars (And you only have to do it once). I’m not sure this is a problem that needs to be solved anymore. -DT]

Here’s what I’m thinking: we have two units, a sender and receiver. The receiver is a Bluetooth-equipped LED taillight unit with an integrated USB-rechargeable battery. It mounts via strong magnets to the rear of the trailer or whatever you’re hauling.

At the sender end, a small box mounts by each taillight with magnets, and has three wires dangling from it, each terminating in a photocell with a suction mount. One photocell suctions to the main taillight/brake light area, one to the turn indicator, and one to the reverse lamp.

When those sections illuminate, the photocells transmit a Bluetooth signal to the receiving light, which illuminates accordingly.

[Editor’s Note: Wait, hold on. You’re just sensing the light from the main taillight and then transmitting a signal based on that? You’re not just tapping into the harness? Why are we even considering this? What? Why? Don’t you have other things to write? -DT]. 

[Writer’s Note: I have no answer here. This same question was going through my head as I did it, too. Why did I write this? I feel like I did it in a fugue state and now I look back on it, baffled. But fuck it, I’m gonna publish it, because I believe in full disclosure. Also, I have a review of the first high volume EV from one of the world’s biggest carmakers I should be writing, but I did this. Jeezis. – JT]

Easy! No wiring, no programming, no anything! Just some magnets and suction cups and you’re off!

None of this would have been possible when J.H. proposed the concept back in 1968, but today? All this could be sold for about $19.99 on Amazon.

Maybe Mr or Ms.Schmidt is still out there, bitter that trailer lighting is such a shitshow still. If so, I implore them to not give up hope: Better, easier trailer lighting is possible, if we can only find those with the proper will to make it happen.

Well, if we’re honest, there are people who are pretty damn close to making it happen, because there are wireless trailer lights in the world already! Look!

Popsci Wireless

Of course, the one difference with these is that they do require the tow vehicle has some provision for trailer lighting to plug the transmitter into, and the suction-cup-photocell approach wouldn’t need even that. Of course, if you have a vehicle with a tow hitch, it’s incredibly unlikely that you wouldn’t have a trailer lighting connector, so, it’s possible my idea is, you know, useless.

But, then again, so is trying to figure out how to make someone’s frustrated idea from 54 years ago real, so I guess it all checks out.

[Editor’s Note:  … -DT]. 

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33 Responses

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  2. Seems like a good idea, would have saved my having to run my car back and forth to the hitch dealer every week for a solid month while they tried to work out why the turn signals weren’t working on the trailer harness, before eventually taking a generic universal harness and jury rigging it (I assume it works now, they assured me it does, but I haven’t hitched a trailer up yet to really check). Of course, that would have required the dealer ordering the car from the factory with the tow package, which they probably wouldn’t have, so I’d have been stuck dealing with a couple defective aftermarket harnesses anyway

  3. Okay, Torch, this seems as good a time as any, I have an idea about tail lights, and I figured I’d run it by you.

    I ended up with a set of tail lights from a 1980-1986 Ford F-150 FlareSide or step side. They’re small, self-contained, with a integrated reverse lamp and license plate lamp. I’d post a pic, but as has been said, y’all are working on that. Should be easy enough to find an example online.

    Back in the early 1990s, my brother built a small homemade trailer. It’s in rough condition but the frame is excellent, it’s extremely well built. Basically it needs new decking, tires, wiring and tail lights. All pretty doable. (We’ll also check everything else with the axle, bearings etc, but it rolls well as is.)

    I thought about using the Ford tail lights, and since trailers don’t have reverse lights, I thought I’d wire in separate turn signals, using the inset reverse lamp housing, with amber bulbs. I’d place them sideways so the “turn signal” would be to one side and not hanging down below or perched above (they fit in the housing better that way anyway).

    Ford was nice enough to imprint a wiring diagram on the side of the tail light, so it should be easy to send turn signal to the reverse lamp, correct? Is it that easy, or will the brake lamp be affected?

    I figure you’re crazy enough, in a good way, to appreciate my thought process here.

    1. Are you using a 4 pin or 7 pin connector? I think 7 pins have reverse in them, so you could light them up properly when reversing which is much cooler. 😉
      Newer travel trailers have white reverse lights in them for safety & visibility.

    2. He’ll appreciate the thought process, I’ll appreciate and decode the wiring.

      Short version is: absolutely will not affect brakes at all on these lights. Why is this? Well, because these tail lights use a 2-plus-hot (3-wire) setup with two bulbs if I have the right diagram here. The reverse lamp is always pulled to ground via the chassis and receives power from the reverse switch circuit 140.

      Long version is: wire the stop lamp using the factory weathertight split-2 connectors as you would on the truck. Great. Now either wire the reverse lamp connector to two wires – one power, one ground – install an amber bulb and you’re done. Note that if you want to use LEDs, I recommend properly soldering a 1W resistor SOLIDLY MOUNTED to a heat dissipating surface for each power line. However, I strongly encourage experimenting with resistor values.

      For my next trick, I’ll teach you how to wire European spec Grand Cherokee WK tail lights (which have 3 bulbs) into a US cost-reduced WK (which has 2 bulbs because that was clearly cheaper than having two totally fucking different sets of tooling.) Step 1: you’re going to need a bottle of hard liquor…

    1. I’ll take Bluetooth over the wiring skills of the 90% of trailer users who drop their brains and fail to do something they teach your sophomore year of high school because “electricity is hard” any day.

  4. If the wireless option doesn’t pan out, mid 80’s GM trucks featured a tethered underhood light with a magnetic base…you could take the light out to the rear quarter for better tire changing visibility, etc., then reel it back in when done. A couple of those mounted in back miiight work.

  5. I like the thought of integrated detachable lights in a tow vehicle. However…in practice I fear this would be a disaster. I can’t count the number of times taillights have been broken on the various trailers I have dealt with. I am guessing well into the hundreds. I would even go so far as to say it is more likely that I have had to tow a trailer with a busted light…or no lights…than I have towed with lights.

  6. Torch, your suction cup idea is extremely suspect. I’ve never met a suction cup from some random Amazon seller that works worth a damn. Also, you’d need two transmitters for each side! Ludicrous!
    Now, something that you taped on with clear packing tape? Maybe. Glued on magnets? Sure. Amazon special suction cups?

    You’re nuts.

  7. I was just looking into making something like this if I end up getting a utility trailer to pull with my GR86 as I don’t want to cut into the wiring harness, but it turns out that they’re available. Easy On is one company making wireless trailer lights, but there may be more. They use a magnet to secure them and are controlled by a remote in the car. To recharge them, you’d have to get 4 rechargeable D batteries plus 2 AAs for the remote.

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  9. Some European countries have a rule about having the rear plate of the tow vehicle visible so they have towing boards with a license plate and tail lights that get attached to the rear of the trailer or to any rack at the rear of the car.
    Which reminds me of a cool accessory that should be on mire cars. the Opel Antara’s integrated bicycle rack. This option was hidden behind the rear license plate and when opened two supports slid out likexa drawer and the dome wheel trays folded out and you had a two bike rack similar to a One Up. While the Antara was sold in the US as a Saturn we didn’t get the rack option and as far as I know this has not been offered on any other car.

    1. My dad had* one of those for towing our sailing dinghy. It was a hollow plastic bar, with a set of tail lights on each end, and number plate in the centre, and a long cable with a standard trailer plug on the end. There was some holes on each end to attach it with rope or bungee cord etc.

      * Given what a hoarder he is, he probably still has it tucked away somewhere.

  10. Would really help when you borrow or rent trailers that have different plugs- or like mine I wired the car and trailer wrong- it worked fine but brother borrowed it and found out that the brake lights were the turn signals and other fuckery

  11. Jason, you can already buy wireless tail lights. They’re designed for fitting to old cars that might not have any rear indicators, so they come with a controller you put near the steering wheel. I know Jay Leno uses them on some of his vehicles.

  12. The online archive of Popular Science seriously helped me get through the first ~400 days of March 2020. I started somewhere in the ‘20s and went up into the ‘80s (where my interest waned cause a) I lived through that b) I was subscribed to PS by ‘85).

    One feature I really liked was the Model Garage-a short story each month giving symptoms of an automotive malady, and how Gus Wilson figured it out. There’s actually a LOT of good info in there—especially into the ‘60s & ‘70s about various make’s ways of dealing with pollution controls and the ways they can fail. Plus, it was kinda smug fun reading about patching tires & scraping carbon from cylinder heads

      1. That was PopSci. The father started out with a pipe stuck in his face -always. As the decades went by, the wife started doing more projects, and, by the end, the pipe was gone. Also noticed that they would recycle the ideas every decade or so.

        Watching the articles-and especially the ads-change over the decades was pretty neat

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