Little by little, advances in technology have started chipping away at the distinction between luxury cars and cars that…well, let's say cars that people who write about tech for a living can afford.
Don’t feel like paying an extra US$3,000 for the package that puts a navigation system in your dashboard? Hey, a standalone GPS unit -- or better yet, the free app that comes bundled on your smartphone -- can do just as well (and probably better.) Don't want to pay a hefty subscription fee for satellite radio? Apps like Pandora, Spotify and now iTunes Radio arguably are at least as good. Even Siri or Google Now can go a long way towards replacing the voice recognition system in that high end car you've been eyeing.
A new product called Automatic is doing its part to close the gap even further. It consists of a device called "Automatic Link" and a companion app called -- you guessed it -- "Automatic App." The Link is a salt shaker-sized device that plugs into your car's OBD-II port. (Don't know if you have one? If your car was built after 1996, don't worry, it's there.)
Once plugged in, Automatic has access to your car's telematics -- giving it real time information about things like speed, gas consumption and performance. That lets you collect all sorts of information about your driving habits and engine health. It's a little bit like an airplane's "Black Box," but for your car.
A Look Under the Hood
In addition to getting in touch with your car's inner self, Automatic Link has a built-in GPS chip and accelerometer, so it can keep track of your car's outer self too: where you drive, where you park, and motions like rapid acceleration and sudden stops. It can even detect really sudden stops -- like those usually followed by loud crashing sounds. Automatic's built-in speaker can provide feedback on those events, and it uses Bluetooth to communicate with your phone to record information on your driving and even call for help on your behalf in the event of one of those aforementioned most sudden of stops.
Setting up Automatic is almost, well, automatic. Plug in the Link, pair it to your phone, register and you're all set. Automatic Link communicates to its companion iPhone app. An iPhone 4s or newer is required, and an Android version is on the way. The company says Automatic uses Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, meaning battery drain is almost imperceptible -- a claim supported in our testing. You can also select contacts that Automatic will try to alert if it senses you've had an accident and may be unable to call for help on your own. More on that later.
While you're driving, the app provides no feedback other than to acknowledge that you are driving -- a smart move in a world that sees enough distracted drivers already. Automatic does provide audio feedback, however, via a trio of different chirps to alert you of rapid acceleration, sudden stops and driving over 70 mph. Happily, any or all of those audio alerts can be disabled.
Once you've reached your destination, Automatic will even remember where you parked, using its built-in GPS chip to indicate your last position with a pin on an embedded map. At that point, the app will also provide you with an analysis of your last trip, complete with gas mileage, distance traveled, time elapsed and even an estimate of how much you spent in fuel. It also provides a score measuring how eco-friendly your driving was, listing how many hard brakes/accelerations you made and how many minutes you spent driving above 70 mph. Automatic calls this "inefficient driving;" in New Jersey, we just call it "driving."
Like a Little Old Lady from Pasadena
As its makers admit, the driving habits Automatic measures are designed to help you develop skills that will boost your fuel economy, and aren't necessarily an indication of your driving ability. For instance, I’ll take the points off for a hard brake over hitting a deer any day. That said, let's just come right out and state for the record that Automatic and I have a serious difference of opinion about what constitutes sudden acceleration.
Automatic also uses the OBD-II port for its main intended purpose: diagnosing engine health. The company says it will read the codes that turn on your "Check Engine" light and tell you what's wrong. You can even use the app to reset the light. We were unable to successfully test this feature, possibly because the Check Engine light on our test car was faulty, rather than an actual problem with the car itself.
Another feature we were glad to be unable to test is Automatic's "Crash Alert" feature currently listed as being in Beta. If the device senses a sudden stop and suspects you were in an accident, it sends a text message to up to three phone numbers you've previously chosen. (When you first enter them in the app, Automatic sends a text message to them to let them know you've selected them.) Automatic's call center is also alerted; they'll report the crash to local authorities based on your location. The device sends out a tone before sending the messages, so you can cancel them in case of a false alarm. And although we didn't get to test that feature in the field, our contacts all got their confirmation messages promptly.
What Automatic does using a port that's almost 20 years old is remarkable, and remarkably handy. By listening to Automatic's alerts (OK, other than the one telling me I was going over 70 mph), I was able to make significant improvements in my driving scores, and more importantly, I noticed my trips to the gas station grew further apart.
For Type A personalities, you can use Automatic's Social features to share your scores and compete with friends. I definitely found myself adjusting my "starts off the line" and braking to avoid triggering the audio alerts. And while I don't typically find myself scratching my head wondering "where did I park?" Automatic had the information at the ready if I wanted it.
It's well worth noting that the Automatic app is a delight to use -- intuitive and gracefully designed. Even the product's packaging was a thing of beauty on par with something created by Apple.
Still No Flying Cars
Automatic does everything it promises to do so flawlessly and seemingly effortlessly it made me slightly disappointed that it didn't do other things too: Things it certainly never promised and indeed, things it couldn't possibly do. For instance, I irrationally wanted Automatic to remotely unlock and start my car, despite these being things that are impossible with the technology it uses. (I’m not alone: Automatic's online community is full of people asking for these things. The company confirmed that they're not possible using Bluetooth -- a short distance technology.)
But the feeling that Automatic could do even more is persistent and goes beyond tasks it can’t be expected to handle: The ability to add notes to a trip, search for nearby gas prices or track your car’s maintenance would all extend Automatic’s usefulness — and appeal.
In a weird way, those nits add up to a big compliment about what Automatic has accomplished. More than either a hardware accessory or an app, it's an enhancement to your car -- something that feels like it should always have been there. Starting there, it's easy to add more features that also "should be there" to the list.
A Slight Case of Sticker Shock
Should you ever need it, Automatic’s "Call for Help" safety feature alone could be worth the device’s one-time $100 price tag; but somehow, the whole doesn’t quite live up to the sum of its parts. We were much more enthusiastic about Automatic when it was offered at the company’s now-expired $70 introductory price. Still, if you consider the savings you could get as you allow it to fine-tune your driving, Automatic could pay for itself in relatively short order.