September 30, 2014

Hands-On Review: Automatic, a Nanny For Your Car

Automatic is a cool idea: Monitor your car and your driving using a Bluetooth dongle plugged into the diagnostic port found on every recent car. But the service itself is frustratingly limited, a dunce driving nanny rather than a useful tool.

Automatic is a “driving assistant” that monitors certain car functions and attempts to help you drive more efficiently

What Is Automatic?

Automatic is a “smart driving assistant”, made up of two components:

  1. A hardware dongle (the “Automatic Link”) that attaches to the OBD-II port found on every car sold since 1996, complete with Bluetooth Low Energy, an accelerometer, and a tiny speaker
  2. A smartphone app that communicates with the dongle to provide information on your car and your driving style

That’s one sweet dongle you’ve got there, Automatic! iPhone 5 shown for scale.

The first component (the dongle) is remarkably cool. It comes packaged in a nifty box, has a slick and professional look, and seems quite functional and efficient.

Setup was quick and painless and everything “just worked”, even with my pair of not-officially-supported cars. The 2009 Mazda 5 sent a VIN to the app over OBD-II, allowing it to be detected automatically (if you pardon the pun). Even though my 2003 Mazda MX-5 Miata did not do the same, an automatic (there I go again) solution was at hand: Scan the barcode in the door-jamb with my iPhone camera.

At $69.95, Automatic is cheap: Easily a third the cost of competing products, and far less than the pro-level OBD-II scanners of just a few years ago. That’s the main reason I jumped on the product on first notice: I always wanted to be able to “hear” what my Miata was willing to tell me through its port!

The devices paired easily with my phone, though the first frustrating limitation was immediately revealed: Each Automatic dongle can only be connected to a single car at once. Switching means losing all previous information. Oh well, I thought. I can live with that.

An App and a Dongle

Once everything was set up and I went for a drive, more annoyances revealed themselves. It seems that the Automatic dongle lacks enough sensors, memory, and power to actually do anything on its own. This is why it’s so cheap, I suppose.

The Automatic app supplements the dongle with the internal GPS, display, and storage on my iPhone. But this leads to serious concerns about long-term use:

  • Automatic uses iOS 5’s “geofencing” capability to remember where your car is, keeping the app alive at all times. This puts a noticeable dent in battery life, a big issue for an app I only use every few days. I took to turning off Automatic’s access to my location in iOS settings, an annoying multi-step process.
  • In iOS, Low-Energy Bluetooth is controlled by the same settings as “regular” Bluetooth, draining the battery further. I usually leave Bluetooth turned off to save energy but this adds another step to using Automatic.
  • Without the GPS in my phone, Automatic apparently can’t remember where I drive, stop, or park, eliminating just about all of the device’s current functionality.
  • Without the phone’s storage (since I turned off Bluetooth), Automatic can’t save any information on my trips.

I can live with Bluetooth always on, but I wish there was some sort of fallback option that didn’t use geofencing. Even adding a simple “on and off” slider in the app would be useful: It’s easier to turn everything on and off in the app before driving than to have to hit two different Settings screens.

So we have a device that works perfectly well when used as intended, but that intended use frustratingly impinges on everyday life: Leaving location services (geofencing) and Bluetooth on all the time allows Automatic to function, but I just can’t live like that.

Your Automatic Nanny

This is what’s wrong with Automatic: My score was 58 out of 100 for the week because I drove 70 mph on the Ohio Turnpike (the posted limit). That terrible score came even though my fuel mileage (32.9 mpg) was well above the car’s EPA highway estimate (28 mpg).

Automatic does nothing at all while driving. There is no useful information on the static screen, and thus no reason to open or look at the app until you walk away from your car. So let’s turn to what Automatic actually does.

I’m kind of a hypermiler. I enjoy using the instantaneous fuel readouts in my 2013 Ford Flex to maximize fuel efficiency, and have achieved some remarkable numbers in that big wagon. But my Mazda 5 and Miata don’t have anything like this, and I had hoped to use Automatic as a surrogate. Boy, was I disappointed!

Nothing the Automatic app currently does appeals to me:

  • At the end of each trip, the Automatic app (if it’s running) displays your total fuel consumption as well as an estimate of the cost of the trip. This sounds useful, but it’s really not. So what if I got 26 mpg on the trip if I can’t see real-time feedback on mileage as I experiment with different driving techniques and routes?
  • In concert with the dongle, the app constantly monitors simplistic elements of your driving style. It will even beep when you accelerate or brake aggressively, and when you exceed 70 mph. But this is useless to anyone with even moderate driving ability: It’s not monitoring fuel use, it’s monitoring G-loads. Interestingly, it also gives “the brake beep” when I turn in quickly, which is pretty common in a Miata. Turning and braking aggressively can actually help fuel mileage in capable hands, and hybrid owners are wise to accelerate strongly (at least while electric motoring)! I turned the dongle’s beeps off, though the app keeps criticizing me.
  • Automatic keeps track of where I parked, but it’s a rare day indeed that I can’t find my car. I suppose this would be nifty for car sharers, but that’s a serious niche market.
  • The app will also display “check engine” codes, but these are a rarity with my well-maintained cars. And it’s nice that it calls for help in case of a crash, but I hope never to use this feature!

So we have here a device/app combo that drains your battery, criticizes a few aspects of your driving, and provides a bit of limited information after you’ve stopped. No thanks.

What It Should Do

One gets the feeling that the Automatic developers were actively looking for new things to monitor and report while intentionally avoiding the things current cars already offer: They opted for gross driving style monitoring and parking help rather than real-time mileage or performance data. But this is exactly the opposite of what I (and perhaps others) want.

I want Automatic to be my companion while driving, not while parked. I want it to help me drive better, not just beep when I accelerate too hard. I want to leave the app running all the time my car is!

  • Display real-time and trailing fuel mileage, just like the latest cars. I bought Automatic because my cars don’t have these functions, so let me have them!
  • Talk to hyper-milers about real efficiency techniques, integrating those rather than the simplistic G monitor. Astoundingly, Automatic doesn’t give “points” for improvements in fuel efficiency; it merely takes points away when you do the three simplistic things it thinks are bad.
  • Give me all of the “fun” data you can pull out of the car. OBD-II includes lots of nifty info, from temperature to engine data. Let me see it, even just in a special window somewhere. Give me real-time engine rpm, engine torque, vehicle speed, fuel usage, etc. The data is there!
  • Show me my current location on a map, like Waze or any competent GPS app. This would give me a reason to open the app!
  • Maybe even include driving directions, and “learn” efficient routes based on real data rather than the generic info my car’s navigation system relies on. Help me avoid stop-start routes, bottom-of-hill stops, and other common fuel wasters!
  • Integrate data services and open an API. Automatic could send trip data to IFTTT or Google Spreadsheets so I could compare different routes over a dozen trips to see which is really the most efficient.

I want to like Automatic, but I don’t. That’s that.

Stephen’s Stance

I know Automatic is in beta, and perhaps even proof-of-concept stage. But it seems the developers have focused on entirely the wrong use case for this promising hardware. Kill the geofencing and post-drive readouts and give me some real-time data. Otherwise I’m likely to leave Automatic in the drawer.

If you’d like more information on how actually to get better fuel economy, let me know. I’d be happy to share some of the fuel economy tips I’ve picked up!

  • plankers

    Do you know if the dongle works with any other OBDII apps? I want to read and clear diagnostic events and am pretty sure I’d be annoyed with the Automatic software.