Testing: Automatic Link Connected Driving Assistant

By Norman Chan

It's like a FitBit for your car.

Like many people, I learned to drive with my parents' car, first practicing in empty parking lots and then graduating to the relatively safe streets of residential neighborhoods. And like many teens, those lessons were taught with dad sitting in the passenger's seat, arms folded and likely terrified (mortified, even), dispensing a never-ending series of rules and cautions about how to be a good driver. Repetition sticks, and to this day my dad's words are permanently ingrained in my head, echoing in the back of my head whenever I take the wheel of a car. Every time I brake hard at a stoplight, I'll hear dad issue a warning on being considerate about my passengers' comfort (good advice). And on the freeway, if I ever catch myself going above 80 miles-per-hour, my brain triggers the memory of stern words coming from my right, telling me to slow the heck down. For the past month, that memory echo has been supplanted by Automatic, a $100 smartphone-connected dongle plays the role of digital dad, riding shotgun and letting me know what a terrible driver I am.

A little unsettling, yes, but Automatic does something that dad never did: record and quantify data about every trip I make in my car. Data, that when interpreted properly, is actually pretty useful.

Here's how it works. Automatic is a two-part system. The first is the aforementioned Link dongle, a small plastic transmitter that connects to your car's Onboard Diagnostics port (OBD-II). OBD-II is a federally mandated standard; every car made after 1996 has the port, with varying degrees of complexity and usefulness. We'll get to what information that port relays in a moment. But this is the port that car mechanics access to assess potential engine problems, for example higher-than-acceptable carbon monoxide emissions. Mechanics tap into this data specialized tools, and consumer hardware to get to that data hasn't been widely-available. The Automatic Link dongle is just that--a piece of mass-produced hardware that can capture OBD-II data and relay it to a smartphone.

Your smartphone is the second part of the system. Specifically, an iPhone, as Automatic so far only supports iOS. (The Android app is in a private beta, as of late December.) The Link dongle pairs with your iPhone over Bluetooth 4.0, using the Low Energy spec so the connection itself isn't a big drain on your phone's battery life. Like other data-quantifying Bluetooth devices (think FitBit or Nike Fuelband), it also doesn't interfere with other Bluetooth connections in your car, so you can still pair with speakers or your car's audio system for hands-free calling. Starting your car powers on the Link and the connection to your iPhone, and data is tracked in the Automatic app, which just runs in the background--you don't have to launch the app every time you drive. GPS tracking is activated for data collection as you drive, which is a bigger drain on your phone's battery than the Link--I'd recommend plugging your phone into a car charger if possible when using Automatic.

With the system paired and an Automatic account created, the data-tracking begins. Here's where an understanding of what the 16-pin OBD-II port can track becomes important. The current ODB-II standard requires that cars monitor over a hundred different variables during operation, ranging from speed to emissions to temperature. Your car is smarter than you know, with dozens of sensors implanted in each of its systems. Each of these parameters is associated with an ID code that is sent to the OBD-II, and your car itself is smart enough know that when certain parameters exceed predetermined limits that it should turn on that nebulous Check Engine light. Deciphering those codes--which can differ from car make--into something a lay person can understand is the promise of the Automatic, in addition to combining that data to extrapolate even more useful information.

Currently, the data Automatic relays to you can be divided into three types: real-time feedback, per-trip information, and diagnostics details. Of those three, I found only one to be really useful.

We'll start with the real-time feedback. While plugged in to your car, the Automatic Link dongle can give audio warnings for three events that it considers is poor driving practice. It'll produce a chirp when it detects hard braking, hard acceleration, or speeding over 70 miles per hour. Basically, events that are detrimental to optimal gas mileage and the health of your brake pads. In a month of driving with Automatic, I received only one hard acceleration warning, but would get the hard brake and speeding alert on a regular basis. The speeding warning was annoying--hitting 70 miles per hour isn't uncommon on the freeway in the Bay Area, and on the low end of the average speedometer on the Interstate (for example driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles). If you stay above 70 miles per hour for an extended period of time, Automatic gives up sending its audio warnings and just keeps logging that speeding duration in the trip log. It really is kind of like an annoyed parent.

I wish you could adjust the minimum threshold for the speeding alert, something like 75 or 80 miles per hour makes more sense in my mind. The good news is that these audio alerts are optional--you can switch each of them off in the Automatic app--and I ended up only leaving the hard brake alert flipped on.

The hard braking alert was also interesting, in that it gave me a better understanding of what my car considers a hard brake. There were numerous times I thought I had stopped comfortably at a red light or behind a car in heavy traffic, and heard the Automatic give me a warning nonetheless. In one testing session, I had a friend ride with me and approached stop signs with different rates of deceleration. In the instances where I thought I had come to a gentle rolling stop but still heard the Automatic alert, I asked my passenger whether they thought I had braked too suddenly or not. In seven out of ten times, they said I could've been more gentle with my braking. So the Automatic hard braking alert, while it's something I don't always agree with, has made me more considerate about how I brake.

What that alert hasn't done--which I was afraid it would do--is override my ability to brake safely for the sake of gamification. Your hard brakes, hard acceleration, and speeding is all accumulated into a daily and weekly driving score, and I was worried that my brain would train itself to be so averse to these audio chirps that I would risk rolling stops just to avoid hearing them. Thankfully, that never came to pass; these cues didn't influence my driving behavior in any unsafe ways. Ingrained caution always prevailed.

The second and most interesting type of data that Automatic provides is per-trip information, accumulated in the smartphone app. Every trip I made with my car was logged in the app, with GPS data showing my route and the places where I violated any of the three real-time tracking parameters. This accrued information was extremely fascinating. I didn't care at all for my daily driving score or where my score placed me in the pool of Automatic users. But both the individual trip data and weekly trip aggregates revealed a lot of information I never thought about driving every day.

For example, I was able to use Automatic to settle once and for all my optimal commute to the office. Before using Automatic, I three different routes that I would take driving to work, which I would pick depending on how backed up traffic was on the freeway. My assumption was the more direct route was more gas efficient, but that another longer route could actually get me to the office faster because it got me on the freeway sooner. Using Automatic's tracking, I was able to A-B test between the routes and confirm the one that met my criteria of shortest travel time.

With newer cars, Automatic is also able to extrapolate gas mileage per trip and estimate how much individual trips cost, just in terms of gas used. That information was revelatory. I has never quantified my driving that way--my previous metric for gas use was how many days I could get by with a full tank before refilling. But putting my commute and short trips in terms of dollar signs--which in my car's case corresponded closely to how I was actually spending per tank--made me rethink driving. A trip to pick up take out for dinner could cost $1.50 in gas, which may not make sense for picking up a $6 burrito. And over the past month, I have really been making an effort to drive less because of this new data.

Aggregated weekly data is also interesting to realize just much driving I actually do. Realizing that I spend almost 10 hours in the car in a typical week let's me organize that time better--I now know how many podcasts episodes to allocate for weekly commuting.

The third type of data Automatic can give you is potentially the most useful, but it's also unfortunately something I was never able to practically test. Automatic keeps tabs on that check engine light in your car and has access to a database of diagnostics code definitions so you can troubleshoot your own problems. In the month I used Automatic, my car never gave off an engine warning so I couldn't evaluate the usefulness of those alerts. In the case of an alert, though, Automatic taps into Yelp to show you nearby mechanics if something needs to be urgently addressed. I'll keep Automatic plugged into and update when I get my next engine warning.

An extra benefit to Automatic being tethered to your phone and GPS is that you can use the app to remember where you parked your car. Elevation data isn't tracked so it's not useful for multi-level parking lots, but it's a practical feature if you're street parking in a new area.

The GPS tracking also inevitably brings up the possibility of using Automatic to keep tabs on the driving habits of someone you know. Can you use Automatic to track the movements of a family member? Technically, yes, but you would have to keep an iPhone hidden in the car to connect to Automatic to actually get location data, and it wouldn't be real-time tracking. There are plenty of other proprietary GPS gadgets for doing the same thing (if Breaking Bad is to be believed).

Automatic is genuinely interesting, but I'm left feeling that there's a lot of untapped potential in the device and service. Automatic acknowledges that it's only skimming the surface of OBD-II data--it doesn't for example, keep track of tire pressure or emissions data. And there are no promises to pass that information to users in future updates. Users don't have to pay a subscription fee, but I'm also bummed that the launch price of the Link dongle was bumped up from $70 to $100. I don't think the long-term value you get out of using the Automatic is worth that price, and definitely not worth switching over to the iPhone if you're an Android user. Until more data is made accessible with Automatic, I'd try to find a friend who has one and borrow it for a few weeks instead of committing to it. My dad might even be available if you just need someone to ride along and let you know when you're driving too fast and braking too hard.