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Automatic Labs Automatic review:

Driving assistant is like Nike FuelBand for your car

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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.

Automatic Smart Driving Assistant
Users can set audible alerts for excessive speed and other factors, as well as monitor engine trouble codes from the app. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

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.

Automatic Smart Driving Assistant
The unobtrusive Automatic is barely visible when plugged into your car's diagnostics port. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

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.

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