What does it actually do?
Automatic Labs' Automatic and its companion smartphone app are intended to make monitoring your vehicle's performance as simple as monitoring your personal performance with a
Meanwhile, the app is also tracking and logging your GPS position, taking advantage of your phone's A-GPS sensor, and can show you past trips and routes on a map to let you know where you've been and how you got there. (This can be useful for helping drivers learn their driving habits and in planning future trips.) At the end of each trip, Automatic also automatically logs the GPS position of your parked car so you can navigate back to your ride.
If your car throws a Check Engine light, with the Automatic app you can download the trouble code that caused the light to illuminate and cause an automatic search of an online database to explain what that code means and whether you should see a mechanic. In the event that the code was caused by something simple, such as a missing fuel cap, Automatic will also allow the user to clear the code and the Check Engine light.
Finally, should the Automatic's built-in accelerometer detect that you've been in a crash, the app can automatically contact emergency 911 services with your name, current location, and vehicle description. If that crash was just a really, really big pothole, you can cancel the emergency call with the app on your smartphone. The early version of the Automatic software that we tried out listed this feature as "Coming soon," so we were unable to test it.
How is this different from other OBD-II readers?
One of the problems that many people have with fuel economy monitors and other diagnostic devices is that they require quite a bit of know-how and inputting of parameters to get them working properly. (I'd wager that three out of five people that I know don't even know their vehicle's engine displacement.) Even I have a hard time tweaking most OBD readers to accurately report fuel economy for CNET's Chevrolet Aveo test car.
Like those fitness devices mentioned earlier, the Automatic Smart Driving Assistant pairs with the Apple iPhone 4S and 5 via a Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy connection, to preserve as much of your handset's precious battery life as possible. There's not much setup involved, Automatic's designers have tried to make the system as plug-and-play as possible, walking the user through a few short setup steps via an in-app tutorial.
First, of course, you need to install the free Automatic app on your iPhone and fire it up. On the back of the Automatic hardware, you'll find a six-digit PIN that the app requires. Next, simply plug the device into your car's diagnostics port with the vehicle's ignition in the off position while the app automatically pairs the devices with the phone via Bluetooth. Finally, the app will notify you to turn the ingition to the on position to fire the vehicle up; meanwhile it will be capturing and checking the information it gathers against Automatic's online database to automatically determine the make, model, and year of your car and information about its engine, guaranteeing the most accurate fuel economy readings without your having to know anything about your car. It will also be gathering EPA estimates for fuel economy to be compared with your actual performance later.
Automatic Labs tells us that most vehicles will be automatically recognized -- our tester vehicle, a brand-new, certainly was. If your vehicle isn't recognized during the pairing process, you'll be able to scan your car's VIN bar code to complete the data collection, or manually input the data.
Do I really need another driving distraction?
One other way that Automatic distinguishes itself from other fuel economy monitors and diagnostic devices is that it does its thing automatically and without interaction from the driver. When you enter the vehicle, the Automatic and your phone automatically pair and the app automatically starts logging your location, driving habits, and fuel usage. The phone can stay in your pocket or can be used for other purposes, such as navigation, hands-free calling, or audio streaming to a car stereo without interrupting the process. The app itself doesn't display any real-time information while you're driving, and if you open it up you'll be greeted with a "driving in progress" message. Later, when you're not driving and are ready to look at the data, it will all be there in the app.
Other app and diagnostic scanner combos will give real-time readouts of fuel economy estimates, vehicle speed, O2 sensor state, air-fuel ratios, and more. But do you really need to be looking at all of that while you drive? Probably not. Likewise, most users will probably only benefit from the few metrics that Automatic does report.
For each trip driven, Automatic reports miles driven, distance driven, calculated mpg, and estimated fuel cost for the trip based on current fuel prices. There's also the aforementioned Driving Score, which is reported on a scale of 0 to 100 with higher scores being better and more efficient. Each trip is also displayed alongside a map tracing the route driven with indicators where hard braking, hard acceleration, and high speeds were recorded. Avoid these events and your Driving Score will increase along with, presumably, your fuel economy.
Automatic can help drivers while a trip is under way, despite its lack of visual feedback. You can set audible alerts for high speeds and sudden acceleration or deceleration and, when the Automatic senses any of these conditions with either its built-in accelerometer or speed sensor, be notified by chimes from the Automatic dongle's built-in speaker. Even if these audible alerts are disabled, the Automatic and its app will still log these events for viewing on the map in the app later.
When can I get one and for how much?
Just do a quick search on Amazon and you'll find dozens of OBD-II readers that will send data to your phone via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for much less than the Automatic's $99.95 asking price. Car nerds are no doubt ready to point out many robust apps for Android and iOS that will provide extremely granular access to the information gathered by these readers. If you've got a bit of car tech know-how and a DIY inclination, you can get set up with a feature set similar to that of the Automatic for less than half the cost. But the Automatic isn't a device for car nerds. It's for the casual driver who wants a bit of help driving more efficiently.
What Automatic does well is, well, automate much of the setup, research, and engine tech geekery that is typically required to get started with diagnostics and fuel economy monitoring. It's about as plug-and-play as I've seen in the world of fuel economy monitoring. Users are paying a sort of "convenience tax" for a more expensive product that does more of the heavy lifting for them. That it rolls in emergency crash response with no monthly subscription fee makes that "tax" a bit easier to swallow.
I should stress that the Automatic isn't a magic boost-my-fuel-economy bullet. It can only assist you toward savings. Whether it's worth the money or not depends on your driving habits. If you notice that you're currently getting lower than the EPA's estimates for your vehicle and need a bit of help figuring out why, the amount of money that the Automatic can save you at the pump could pay for itself. If you're already a fairly thrifty driver, it could take longer to make up the Automatic's price with fuel savings. If you're the type of driver who doesn't heed the app's warnings to avoid fast starts and high speeds, well, you may just be disappointed by consistently low Driving Scores. As with most vehicle-related efficiency metrics, your mileage will vary.
The Automatic driving assistant is available on Automatic Labs' Web site with iPhone 4S, 5, 5S, and 5C compatibility. Android compatibility for select Bluetooth Low Energy-capable handsets is planned for December. For a projected list of those Android devices that will be supported, see Automatic's Web site.