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Summary:

Before today Automatic was selling its vehicle-data-gathering gadget solely on its website. Now it has the opportunity to put its quantified driving technology in front of millions of Apple customers.

Automatic Link
photo: Automatic

Automatic Labs, a San Francisco startup trying to turn unconnected cars into connected ones, just got a distribution boost courtesy of Apple. Starting Wednesday, Automatic’s Link vehicle-data-sniffing device will be available for purchase at Apple’s 250 U.S. stores and in the Apple Online Store.

For those of you unfamiliar with Automatic Link, it’s a $100 cartridge that connects directly to your car’s internal computer through the ODB-II port standard in all vehicles made after 1996. It then connects to an iPhone through Bluetooth, pulling all sorts of driving data into its app.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 11.35.24 PM

Automatic tells you how you’re driving – whether you’re braking too hard, accelerating too quickly or exceeding 70 mph too often. It records every mile you drive, generates a map of every route you take, and it drops a pin every time you park. It also does a rough calculation of your fuel economy and expenses based on nationwide gas prices and your vehicle make and model. If your check engine light comes on, Automatic alerts you via text message and gives you much more detailed diagnostic information than any dashboard idiot light ever could.

I’ve been testing out Automatic for the last two weeks. While I’ve been impressed by the app’s ease of use and have been fascinated by the sudden flood of new driving data, I have to admit I don’t find the data all that useful. The app has alerted to me some of my less laudable driving habits, but apart from locating my parked car, I don’t find much occasion to access Automatic’s data.

Automatic screen shotBut as Automatic co-founder and CEO Thejo Kote pointed out in an interview this week, the company is really only at the beginning of what it hopes will be a long road trip toward quantifying vehicle data. While Automatic is supplying basic driving information and driving tips today, it plans to build more sophisticated services on top of that core data. For instance it’s launched a beta program called Crash Alert that can determine if you’ve gotten into a car accident, automatically alerting emergency services and your family.

Kote was a bit cagey as to what Automatic’s other future services might be, but he hinted at a lot of possibilities. For instance, after learning your typical driving routes, Automatic could recommend alternatives based not just on distance and time, but also on fuel savings and safety. Since Automatic knows every time you hit the brake pedal, it could determine the optimal time to get your brakes replaced based on your own unique driving patterns.

What’s more, Automatic will become much smarter as more people start using Link, Kote said, allowing it to not only access your own vehicle data but compare it to thousands of other cars of the same make and model – many of whom are driving the same streets. That’s why the Apple deal is key, Kote said. Right now Automatic is a small operation, emerging from Y Combinator in 2011 and backed by Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund. Before today it was selling its Link solely through its own website – hardly ideal for large-scale driver adoption.

connected car logoApple isn’t just a big retailer in its own right. Because of its selective inventory, Apple Stores are a means to showcase its product directly to tech-savvy consumers (and considering the iPhone is the only smartphone platform on which Automatic currently works, Apple is a particularly important partner).

The quantified driving space Automatic is pursuing is quickly becoming crowded. Companies ranging from major insurers to small startups like Moj.io are all tapping the OBD-II port for different types of data. New startups like ZenDrive propose to accomplish the goals as Automatic without any specialized hardware, instead relying on the smartphone’s growing array of sensors. Getting in front of Apple customers could be the big break Automatic needs to distinguish itself from the pack.

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  1. It’s great… Until they sell your data to your insurance company and your rates skyrocket because you like “spirited driving”

  2. I installed mine a few days ago. I have to say it is a really awesome hardware/software combination. Incredibly impressive and polished for v1.0. It does everything they claimed with ease. Just set it up one time and it works. I like it for what it is today (I like the code reader function as I have an older vehicle with false codes from time to time) and that is worth the purchase price. Curious to see what else they might do with in the future.

  3. What’s a tech message?

    1. Thanks Nick,

      Typo. “Text” message. Corrected

  4. It’s cool but I think we’re going “tracking crazy” for the average person. For fleet managers or trucking companies, especially those with drive time limits, this would be great. I could see a valid application for driving schools and tests where empirical data about a driver’s actions would be relevant. The average mom/dad taking there kids to school or going to work does not need this. Most people will not change their driving habits based on these reports.

    I love that the device can interpret the “idiot light”, but with most new cars having larger screens, why aren’t we just outputting diagnostic information over to that screen? I shouldn’t need a new device in the car to have my iPhone tell me why the check engine light is on. That would be like having someone invent a special clock to sit on top of a cable box that actually plugged into the back to keep the time synced.

    For parents, yes, this could be a valuable tool. But now we’re not talking about a “self-help” device anymore. We’re talking about a device used to monitor *someone else’s* driving habits. This is why most people have reservations about these types of devices. You can’t help but feel it is just another digital trojan horse being brought into the car disguised as a gift.

    As soon as these services start taking your data and comparing it to other drivers one wonders what else is being done with it. Look at NYC. They figured out that they could build sensors to read EZ Pass devices and now they’re mapping every customer’s driving patterns all over the city. It’s not what the devices do today. It’s what they can be made to do tomorrow that gets concerning.

    1. I would think parents would take this device up to monitor their kids driving. After all, in the majority of cases, the kid is driving a car the parents bought. I’d like to see a device with an ignition interlock so that the car won’t start without this device in it. This device goes witht the Reagan philosophy on the Soviets, “Trust, but verify”.

  5. I’d need to know how private my data is and need more more info on diagnostic codes. I don’t really need self quantified driving tips. I know what style of driving yields good results (boring).

    This product is well done but its benefits seem rather nebulous to me. I also feel like sensors in smartphones will obviate the need for these devices.

    1. …”obviate the need for” is redundant.

  6. I’ve been using a GoPointBT1 Bluetooth ODB2 connector with an app called Dash Command. This product sounds a little more dynamic. I’d like know if I can buy their app and run it on the GoPoint hardware, or is it proprietary? Also, I don’t see their app in the App Store, what is the exact name of the app?

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