If your car was sold in the U.S. about 1989 onwards then underneath the dashboard is a connector that looks rather like a good old RS232 socket (at least that’s what you’ll think of if you’re over 50 … under 50 you may never have had to deal with one of those, but I digress).
This connector is the On Board Diagnostic interface for your vehicle and it can report on many parameters of your car’s performance. The most common version of OBD installed in most US cars since 1996, is called OBD-II. This interface reports on a huge amount of performance data including:
- engine speed
- corrected vehicle speed
- open/closed loop
- boost/vacuum combo gauge
- acceleration (and braking)
- power with optional drag correction (air & tire)
- instant fuel economy
- average fuel economy
- average fuel economy over 3 time periods
- distance to empty
- time to empty
- fuel level %
- fuel remaining in tank
- fuel flow rate gauge
- timing (spark advance)
- engine coolant temp.
- intake air temp.
- ambient air temp.
- manifold absolute pressure
- mass air flow
- fuel trims, short and long term
- percent engine load
- catalyst temp.
- fuel pressure
- air/fuel ratio
The interface also reports Diagnostic Trouble Codes, or DTCs, which indicate which part of your car is going to be unpleasantly expensive to fix. As you might expect given the number of car manufacturers and vehicle models there is a huge number of DTCs and sites like Engine-Codes exist to catalog them.
So, given this treasure trove of data about almost any vehicle what could you do with it? The chaps at Automatic Labs, Inc., thought about this and produced the a dongle that plugs into the OBD-II socket and communicates via Bluetooth LE to an app on your iOS or Android smartphone.
Now, if you’re a geek, let me warn you up front; this product doesn’t slice and dice all of that car data goodness. Nope, what it does is still useful but much more consumer oriented: Automatic tracks your driving habits noting where you go and when, calculates distances and fuel costs and, in a rather big brotherly way, tracks the way you drive and scores your performance accordingly. It also remembers where your car was last which could be very useful if you’re in one of those very large car parks and you forget which stall your car is in.
Another useful feature is if your engine light comes on, Automatic will analyze the DTC and let you know what the problem is (this could be very useful as it ensures that you know what the garage should bill you for) ; it can also find nearby mechanics for you. You can also clear the DTC event if you wish; this will turn off the engine warning light as well, useful for non-critical codes that might, for example, worry your significant other.
Your driving performance score is affected by how often you brake hard, accelerate hard, or exceed a configurable speed (70 mph is the default). The dongle, by default, makes a sound for each violation but, thankfully, you can disable this feature. You can also set a low fuel warning.
And interesting feature is that Automatic will know when your car is in a collision; the app first asks you if you need help and if you don’t respond and cancel the alert within 30 seconds the crash data is sent to Automatic’s call center where an agent will call you. The agent will, if requested or no reply, summon local authorities and contact the people you specify on your Emergency Contacts list.
The app records every trip or, more accurately, tries to … when your car starts the dongle attempts to connect to the app but if the app’s not running or for some reasons a connection can’t be made to the app (Automatic notes there is a bug in iOS 7 that causes BLE connections to apps to fail) then your trip will not be recorded. Curiously, Automatic doesn’t provide anyway to manually add the missing data. Note that this also means that all of the other features of Automatic might not be available to tell you where you parked or help if you've had a crash.
Installation is extremely easy and the biggest problem you're likely to have will be finding the OBD-II connector. Once you've installed Automatic and it’s configured the system will start recording your trips and how well you drive but, again curiously, you can't easily export the data which I'd suggest is an huge oversight. You can, however, get at the data the hard way: Via Automatic’s API.
A neat addition to what Automatic can do was provided by IFTTT using Automatic’s API. This allows you to create IFTTT recipes that can use car data including trip cost, length, duration, locations, and driver’s performance so you could send it in an email message or dump it into a Google spreadsheet.
So, at $99.95 is Automatic worth it? The answer depends on what you want the gadget for: If you want an easy to install and configure system that will record your trips and costs and improve your driving habits then, yes, it’s probably going to be just what you want but it’s a little over-priced.
On the other hand, if you’re a geek and want all the techie details you can buy far more sophisticated apps that don’t include things like the crash notification service for considerably less (for example, an OBD-II WIFi dongle for around $16 and an app that understands the data for around $10).
Automatic gets a Gearhead rating of 4 out of 5 with the note that should Automatic choose to do so, this could become an amazing gadget that could satisfy both the consumers and the geeks. Fingers crossed.
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