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Auto Tech Meets Mobile Tech: Where Has the Automatic Smart Driving Assistant Been All My Life?

by Adriana Lee | March 12, 2013March 12, 2013 6:00 pm PST

Automatic_iPhone_app_Car

Automatic’s new Smart Driving Assistant solution is forehead-slappingly brilliant. Not only can this combination mobile app–and–hardware unit turn your trusty device into an incredibly smart piece of automotive technology, but it could turn anyone with a vehicle and an iPhone into a bona fide car geek.

Automatic_Link-CarThe company has managed to fill a big gap in the consumer automotive experience. Consider this: Onboard computers have been standard for nearly 20 years now. And yet, they’re still relatively closed environments. Without specialized equipment, owners can’t access that data to see historical driving behaviors, fuel consumption records or even just to find out why that blasted “check engine” light fires on for seemingly no reason. Well with Automatic’s $69.95 combo pack, that frustration can finally end.

The system relies on the Automatic Link hardware unit, which plugs into your vehicle’s OBD-II Data Link Connector (a standard data port installed in cars since the mid 90s). When this little nugget jacks into the OBD and pairs with the iPhone app over Bluetooth, it dishes up a robust set of data that clues you into details about your vehicle and driving habits, in addition to basic info, like where you parked.

Fuel efficiency features: It cross-references your GPS and car data against Google Maps and current gas prices to give you trip data, track fuel efficiency, log acceleration patterns and offer engine alerts. For example, when you hit a gas station, Automatic can pinpoint your location and knows what you were charged for gas there. And it can tell if your habits are fuel efficient or not. (Did you know that if you usually peel out, hard stop or speed, you’re wasting about a third of your gas mileage?) It tracks your driving behavior, comparing it to your data from the week before, and gives you a score for gas efficiency. While you’re driving, the unit beeps when its accelerometer notices that you slammed on your brakes or gas pedal.

Emergency response assistance: Like OnStar, Automatic can alert emergency services when you’re in an accident. But unlike this premium service — which employs live operators to handle crises — there’s no ongoing monthly subscription fee, since the process is automated. The accelerometer can recognize the specific conditions of a vehicle crash, so when it registers a collision, it connects directly to Automatic using your phone. The company then auto-dials 911 with a description of the incident and your location, and will even notify a personal contact. And if it somehow gets triggered erroneously, you can cancel the process. Given a choice, OnStar is still the better option, since phones often get damaged in serious collisions, but Automatic’s system is preferable to the alternative — which is nothing at all. 

Check-engineDiscover why your “check engine” light is on… and turn it off yourself: This has to be responsible for a windfall of garage services. Why did that light go on? Well, if you have an oil leak, you may have to suck it up and pay for the diagnostic and repair. But if you merely forgot to put your gas cap back on, you can now handle that yourself and even turn off the light, thanks to the app. It has access to a database of engine alert codes, so users can see what the codes mean and how to appropriately address them. And if the situation requires a professional, the app can even show you a nearby map populated by the best-reviewed mechanics on Yelp.

But before you fall too much in love with the Smart Driving Assistant, it’s time for a dose of reality: Automatic can’t guarantee that it will work with every make and model of car since 1996. (At least not yet.) So far, it’s verifiably compatible with 200 model/year combinations, but the testing is ongoing and will continue through the launch phase. And second, this is for the iPhone only right now. This may be an immensely helpful solution, but it’s leaving out a huge portion of the driving population at launch.

That’s the bad news. Now here’s the good:

Automatic isn’t throwing the Android userbase under the bus. In fact, it’s actively working on an Android app for the fall. And even though the system hasn’t been proven to work with every car yet, the company pledges not to sell this solution to a customer unless it has been tested to work with his or her specific vehicle.

And the good news just keeps getting better and better:

  • All those tasty features only use about 5MB per month, making it perfect even for people with limited data plans.
  • The hardware unit is easy to install. From the company’s Q&A page: “All you need to do is plug it into your car’s Onboard Diagnostics Port (OBD). The location of this port depends on the car, but it’s usually below the steering wheel, right around the foot pedals. During setup, the Automatic app helps you find it and guides you through the process.” 
  • Automatic is backed by Y Combinator and Founders Fund, which gives it a decent chance of being more than just a fly-by-night operation that ultimately strands its users. Cool hunters who shop startup products know this is one of the first things to look for before slapping down real money. However…
  • … at $69.95, it’s not exactly a massive amount of cash to risk. 

Honestly, the more I dig into the details of Automatic’s solution, the less I can believe that I’ve been driving around without this for so long. It’s like the missing piece of a puzzle that I didn’t know I wanted to solve. And now that it’s coming, I may have to jump on this while the getting’s good.

Pre-orders are available here for iPhone 4S and 5 users. You can also pre-order if you have a Motorola Droid (RAZR MAXX, RAZR M), HTC (Thunderbolt, Evo 4G), Samsung Galaxy (SII, SIII, Note I, Note II, Nexus) or Nexus 4, and you don’t mind waiting for the app to arrive this fall. The order page also offers a list of compatible vehicles, so head there to see if your ride has been tested.

What do you think about the Automatic Link and app combo? Does the featureset impress you, or is there anything missing here that you’d love to see?

The Verge

Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...

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