My car is probably the dumbest machine I own. It’s a 2000 Honda Accord, meaning it’s got none of the cool in-dash electronics found in today’s latest models, like the MyFord Touch entertainment system from Ford, the OnStar safety and navigation system from GM, or the iDrive computer system from BMW.
But what I do have is a state-of-the-art smartphone, an Apple iPhone 5, with 33 million times as much memory as the Apollo 11 flight computer. Why can’t I just use my phone to monitor my car’s vital functions?
For that matter, why does Detroit even bother to put fancy electronics in cars, when blazing-fast product cycles in the mobile world mean that even the slickest car infotainment system is going to look outdated within a year or two?
Those are exactly the same questions that Automatic Labs is asking. The San Francisco startup makes a $70 Bluetooth gadget, the Automatic Link, that plugs into the onboard data port found in every gasoline-engine car made since 1996. From there, it beams data about engine performance to your iPhone, where it’s collected and displayed inside Automatic’s app.
The free app monitors your speed, braking, fuel consumption, and other factors, and gives you feedback about your driving habits that the company says can lead to “huge savings” on gas. You can even use it to control your car’s onboard computer—for example, you can turn off that pesky “check engine” light that probably came on the last time you left your gas cap loose.
The big idea is to connect your car to the powerful computing device in your pocket and give you the data you need to be a better, more efficient driver. (And to keep you safe: there’s an accelerometer inside the Link that can detect when you’ve been in an accident and automatically alert 911 operators.)
But don’t let me prattle on—it’s far easier to watch this video of my recent test drive with Ljuba Miljkovic, chief product officer at Automatic.
That short, 7.5-mile drive around San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood took 45 minutes (we talked a lot along the way) and burned $1.62 worth of gas, according to the Automatic app. How did it know that? By multiplying our miles driven by the fuel efficiency data from the Toyota Corolla’s computer, then grabbing local gas-station price data from the Web.
You may have noticed the chirp from the app when Miljkovic deliberately came to a screeching stop at the corner of Carolina and Mariposa, at 2:28 in the video. (The rough braking probably cost him a few tenths of a point on his Automatic driving score, but hey, that’s part of his job.) That’s one example of the mild audio admonishments Automatic users get for driving inefficiently. If we’d accelerated too fast or driven faster than 70 miles per hour—both gas-wasters—the app would have chirped again.
The driving score, which is displayed once you park, gives a running assessment of your frugality. People who keep their scores in the 90s can reduce their yearly fuel costs by as much as $1,000, according to the company. (As an added bonus, the app automatically logs your location when you park, in case you’re the kind of person who can never remember where you left your car.)
Here’s the trip summary for our test drive:
If these screen shots remind you of the jogging maps and calorie counts you get with a fitness app like RunKeeper or Runmeter, it’s not a total coincidence. You might think of Automatic as one harbinger of a “quantified car” movement paralleling the quantified self craze. Now that our phones have become so powerful—able to communicate with many different kinds of sensors, and full of sensors of their own—it makes sense that they’re becoming the information hubs for all of our daily activities, from exercising to eating to driving.
A few background details: Automatic was co-founded in 2011 by Jerry Jariyasunant, a former BAE Systems software engineer who went back to school at Berkeley to get a PhD in civil engineering, and Thejo Kote, a mobile entrepreneur whose previous company used SMS messages to keep people up to date about water utilities in urban India. The company was part of the Summer 2011 class at the Y Combinator startup accelerator in Mountain View, CA, but operated in secret for an extended period while it raised venture backing from Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund and worked out design and manufacturing issues.
The company finally came out of stealth mode this March and began taking pre-orders for the Link device, which is expected to begin shipping in May. (If you haven’t ordered one already, you’ll have to wait until July.) The app is iPhone-only for now, though an Android version should be ready later this year.
As Miljkovic says in the video, one of Automatic’s goals is to increase driver efficiency on a large scale—that’s why the startup chose a simple business model, selling the Link for a flat $70 rather than making customers sign up for some complex subscription service.
If you’re looking for a way to help millions of people save gas, there’s probably no better way than to turn the devices they’re already carrying into driving coaches. As Miljkovic says: “Small changes, if we all do our part, can have a really large impact.”
[Update, Oct. 2, 2013: Up to now, the Automatic Link has been available only for pre-order, but the company says it's finally about to come out of pre-order mode. Starting Oct. 7, the Link will be available on the Automatic site for $99.95.]
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