Automatic Labs, a San Francisco startup trying to turn unconnected cars into connected ones, just got a distribution boost courtesy of Apple(s aapl). 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.
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.
But 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.
Apple 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.