Is there a place for car tech in the CNET Smart Home?

We've tested a lot of stuff at the CNET Smart Home, but now we're heading outside to see if car tech adds anything to the equation.

From LEDs to thermostats and security gadgets, we've decked out the CNET Smart Home with all sorts of connected tech. The Amazon Echo -- a Wi-Fi-enabled speaker with voice control capabilities via Alexa, the Echo's ever-present robot assistant -- is at the center of these updates. That's because Alexa is accessible, an easy entry point into the wild world of smart devices. Just say, "Alexa, turn on the lights," and she will. No app, no hub, no fuss.

But voice control isn't that helpful when you aren't within range of your Echo (that could change with the portable Tap device due out from Amazon early next week). Not only that, but "universal" apps from hubs like SmartThings can be confusing to navigate.

Fortunately, there's another way to communicate with your smart home: through your car. It's a fledgling industry for sure, but one that's gaining momentum. So we took some connected car tech out for a test drive to see how well it worked with the CNET Smart Home.

Revving up

Today's cars are smarter than ever before. A quick glance at CNET's new Roadshow automotive site and you'll see coverage related to concerns over vehicle hacking, cars equipped with night vision tech, the development of robotic brakes and operational self-driving cars.

But there's also a growing segment within that broader connected car contingent that's focused entirely on integrations between your vehicle and your home. AT&T's Digital Life home security and automation platform has announced plans to partner with automobile manufacturers on voice control in-dash displays; BMW now has its own beta IFTTT channel; Ford and Amazon have said they're in talks to discuss potential voice control applications. The list goes on.

Most of this stuff is still in development, though. And what's already out there, like BMW's IFTTT channel, is pretty limited. If you don't have a compatible BMW, for instance, you're out of luck.

Switching gears

But, there are a handful of DIY accessories out there too, like Automatic and Zubie -- two onboard diagnostics II readers (commonly called OBD-II readers) that you connect to your car's diagnostics port for details on everything from how well you're driving to information on why your check engine light turned on. (I imagine these go over well with parents looking to monitor teen driving.)

The Dash app is similar to Automatic and Zubie, but offers the service only -- you have to track down an OBD-II reader that will transmit data to the Dash app on your own.

Automatic gives you a report after every trip. This was a trip I took from the office to a nearby gas station.

These sorts of integrations are designed to work with the vast majority of cars on the road today. All three have IFTTT channels, but only one -- Automatic -- has an Alexa Skill. So we stuck one in my car to see what, if any, value it might add to the smart stuff we've installed at our Smart Home.

An Automatic test drive

Automatic is easy enough to set up. Simply download the Automatic app, available for Android and iOS, and follow the instructions to get things up and running.

You'll create an account, make sure Bluetooth is enabled on your phone (if your phone isn't on and connected to Bluetooth none of Automatic's features will work), enter the PIN number provided on the back of your Automatic, install the adapter (this is the trickiest part, if you don't know where to find your OBD-II port), pair it with your phone -- and voila.

Now you just have to wait for it connect, answer a few questions, like what fuel grade you use and you're ready to take your Automatic for a drive. The entire set up process was roughly as simple as configuring a DIY security camera. 20 minutes tops and you're good to go.

None of Automatic's basic functionality is directly applicable to the smart home, but I did test out its partnerships with IFTTT, SmartThings (via IFTTT) and the Amazon Echo. That's when things got interesting.

When car tech and the smart home converge

I created IFTTT rules linking Automatic with Philips Hue lights, an Ecobee3 thermostat and even a Schlage lock that connects to Automatic via SmartThings and IFTTT.

Whenever I turned my car's ignition on or off at the CNET Smart Home, the Hue LEDs switched off and on accordingly and the Ecobee3 auto-adjusted to either Home or Away mode.

Similarly, the Schlage lock was supposed to lock and unlock, but this specific functionality wasn't very reliable. While I was able to lock and unlock the deadbolt from the SmartThings app, the IFTTT integration with Automatic never worked. This spotty performance is something we also documented during our lock build-out post.

As far as voice integrations go, you can ask Alexa a handful of questions about your car using Automatic's Alexa Skill.

They include:

  • "Alexa: Ask Automatic, where's my car?"
  • "Alexa: Ask Automatic, what's my fuel level?"
  • "Alexa: Ask Automatic how much I drove last week."

The Echo commands in particular are really limited right now, so I reached out to Automatic to get a sense of their plans to improve existing integrations and/or add new partners. The team responded that they're "looking at new integrations, but don't have anything to announce just yet."

The Automatic Car Adapter.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

Conclusion

While the gap between connected cars and the smart home is narrowing, Automatic definitely isn't the answer if you're looking for comprehensive car/smart-home integrations. Even so, it's the smartest bit of DIY car tech available today (that works with most cars, that is) -- not only can you use it to monitor your driving, you can control your lights, thermostat, locks (in theory) and more (pretty much anything that has an IFTTT channel -- or works with SmartThings).

You can also use it as part of your growing list of Alexa commands, particularly if you've forgotten where you parked your car or wonder in passing how many miles you drove last week. As limited as those Echo integrations are today, there's a lot of potentially interesting stuff on the horizon with the Amazon Tap, a portable version of the Echo -- that's something we're keeping a close eye on.

In the meantime, Automatic offers the widest array of potential integrations today and that's why we're using it with the CNET Smart Home.

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