Can Car-Connected Apps Improve Your Driving?

Spend a month with Automatic tracking your driving, and the app will tell you a lot.


Telematic driver devices — data collection devices, usually connected via a vehicle’s OBDII (On-Board Diagnostics) port — render real-time reporting of vehicular behavior. Initially, insurance companies sold telematics as an automotive “black box” that would help reduce (typically young and/or new) drivers’ escalating insurance rates. They’ve been in use in the United States for just over a decade, but right out the gate, they were seen as a double-edged sword; many drivers debated the lure of potentially lower premiums in exchange for full disclosure behind the wheel. Still, numerous versions of the technology are available today for anyone willing to sacrifice their piloting privacy.

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If you’re like us, you’re intrigued by the idea of a connected car being able to quantify your driving behaviors. And if, consequentially, you save some fuel or curb less desirable tendencies, it’s icing on the driving cake. So, over the last few months I drove around with Automatic ($100), a car-connected device that renders real-time data and behavior manipulation techniques via a smartphone app to you and you alone, to see if it might help lighten my lead foot.

Automatic is comprised of a low-energy Bluetooth module mounted within a small, plug-and-play dongle and an accompanying smartphone app. Setup takes no time at all (provided you know where your on-board diagnostics port is) and the software intuitively guides you along the way. During setup it’s a good idea to take note of the six-digit code on the back of the dongle before plugging it in, as you’ll need to enter that to open the lines of communication between software and hardware. Once connected, the system takes a few minutes with the engine running to configure itself, which is the perfect excuse to go for a drive.

The Score Card
+ Set-up is easier than finding your fuel-flap release
+ Downloadable trip data makes submittable reports easy
+ Hardware/software can lure developers for further development

– Lack of customization
– Some “missed” trips can and do occur
– No integrated vehicle service log

While in motion, the dongle acts as a broadcast station for your car’s ECU (Engine Control Unit). The numbers and digital coding it relays are crunched by the software and displayed via infographics on your smartphone. Each trip is tracked and mapped individually and, depending on your habits, is given a score out of 100. For traveling salespeople or hypermilers, Automatic delivers all of the essential metrics: the distance travelled, fuel consumed and the estimated cost for each trip, making month-end submittals or mileage tracking extremely simple. In fact, users can also log in to their web-based Dashboard account and export the information into a .CSV spreadsheet, if so desired. From that same Dashboard a more informative review of any of your individual trips taken can also be examined.

I’ll be the first to admit that on some stints behind the wheel my sole goal was to score as many warnings as possible.

At the onset this seemed to be mere window dressing, but by the end of the second month with Automatic I began using this tool to better plan my days. With some simple rearranging of appointments based on the average time I’d spent in traffic on trips to recurring destinations, I whittled an extra 45 minutes off my commute. That means more quality time with clients, or better yet, at home. The device also alerts drivers, via alarms blurted from the dongle’s integrated speaker, of lead-footed behaviors in the form of hard accelerations, driving over 70 mph and hard braking maneuvers. The alerts can be turned off, but I kept mine on to see if my habits behind the wheel would change at all.

I used Automatic in two completely different vehicles. In a Dodge Journey daily driver, my driving was sedate and miserly — the CUV is far from an autocrosser. Bells were infrequent at best. However, once connected to a Subaru BRZ, everything changed. “Hard” accelerations seemed to happen at every green light, and venturing north of 70 mph on the freeway was a given. The bells calmed down after a few trips, but I’ll be the first to admit that on some stints behind the wheel my sole goal was to score as many warnings as possible.

Of course, if you have a young and/or new driver in the household or are looking to change your own ways, Automatic’s methods and measurements are extremely beneficial. Drivers can establish Pavlovian responses to Automatic’s bells and aim for a perfect score on each trip out. There are, however, limitations.

In just five years’ time, over 250 million vehicles worldwide will have some form of connected technology. Many will include telematics.

The software itself lacks much-needed customization. While the trip cost estimates for the Dodge might have been bang-on, the Subaru demands high-octane fuel — a setting that can’t yet be changed in Automatic. Also, as you’ve probably noticed, pump prices have plummeted over the last couple of months and there was no way to adjust prices in the app. The other major shortfall I found with trip tracking was the inability to toggle between imperial and metric measurements. That may not be an issue below the 49th parallel, but my testing was conducted north of the border and, let’s be honest, this conversion is the simplest of algorithms to add.

There are other features included with Automatic, like troubleshooting engine fault codes and a crash alert feature — which I thankfully didn’t experience, but it would prove a huge bonus should the occasion rise. But, when attempting to set up the 3 emergency contacts, Canadians will be limited to using US-based phone numbers only. While this certainly isn’t a deal-breaker, it seems like an unnecessary oversight and something that excludes global adoption.

The automotive landscape is changing. Today’s entry-level econoboxes now offer heaps of technology; even Chevrolet’s regrettable and forgettable Spark can be optioned with 4G connectivity. Technology research firm Gartner predicts that in just five years’ time, over 250 million vehicles worldwide will have some form of connected technology. Many will include telematics. By building on a solid introductory platform, with a few minor tweaks and the ability to change crucial settings, Automatic could should prove to be an essential tool for integrating analytical future-tech into a large portion of the remaining one-billion potential users.

Buy Now: $100

Methodology: After setting up Automatic, I simply drove as I normally do. After the first couple of weeks I had a data set to work with and tried to change some habits. Some got better; some, not so much.

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