Cars have been equipped with onboard computers for decades now, but as they get smarter, they remain stubbornly closed off. You might see an miles-per-gallon reading on your dashboard, but there's no way to check it on your phone, and as soon as you finish a trip on an on-board GPS system, it's gone forever. As Automatic CEO Thejo Kote puts it, "your car is the most expensive computer you own." And it's usually a pretty bad one.
A comprehensive record of every trip you take
Naturally, Kote has a plan to fix that. Automatic is a combination app and hardware unit, launching this August for $69.95. It mixes your car's data with Google Maps and gas pricing info to create a comprehensive record of every trip you take, tracking fuel efficiency, acceleration and engine alerts. It's a familiar playbook — opening up a legacy tech into the mobile world — but few companies have tried it on the automotive world. And with backing from Y Combinator and Founders Fund, Automatic has the resources to give it a shot.
First, a few words on how it works. The hardware unit connects to a car's OBD-II Data Link Connector — an often-overlooked data port that's been standard on every car since 1996. Through the data link, Automatic has access to fuel, mileage, and engine information, which it sends to your phone through its Bluetooth antenna. From there, the app pulls in GPS, fuel pricing, and map data to build a comprehensive picture of every drive you take. When you stop to fill up, Automatic uses geolocation data to determine which gas station you're at, then uses its own database of stations and daily prices to calculate how much you paid.
When the accelerometer senses a sudden brake, you'll hear a soft ping
Those trip maps are the core of Automatic, but the app has an number of more immediate functions built on top of them. The most prominent feature is a fuel-efficiency score, designed to nudge you into gas-saving driving habits. Automatic is playing off a Department of Energy report which found that avoiding hard stops, fast starts, and speeding can increase gas mileage by up to 33 percent. To drive you towards a higher fuel economy, Automatic monitors for those three behaviors and gives you a running tally of how well you're doing based on the previous week of driving. A small speaker on the unit takes things even further: when its accelerometer senses a sudden brake or a quick start, you'll hear a soft ping to let you know it registered. When you scan over the trip afterwards, it will show up on the map. Like Nest, Automatic thinks that making the information easily accessible will be enough to change your habits.
You can turn off the check engine light from inside the app
The app also has access to the engine alert codes usually pulled by mechanics. That means that when your "Check Engine" light comes on, Automatic can tell you whether it's lighting up because of an oil leak or just because you left the gas cap off. Gearheads have been pulling these codes for years with special devices, but Automatic simplifies the process with instant access to a database of what each code means, along with response actions to each one. If the problem is serious, you can bring up a map of nearby mechanics, complete with a five-star rating pulled from Yelp. If it's a simple gas-cap problem, you can turn off the light from inside the app, saving you a trip to the garage (and probably some money, too).
Automatic also offers an OnStar-style crash-assistance service. The hardware unit's onboard accelerometer is programmed to recognize the unique profile of a crash and trigger your phone to alert Automatic HQ. From there, the company's servers will robocall the nearest 911 center with details about what happened and where you are. You'll be able to cancel the alert from your phone if it's a false alarm, but in the event you don't, the app will also alert a designated family member to let them know what's happened. And unlike OnStar, Automatic doesn't have to support call centers, so it can keep the system running without a monthly fee.
It could be the most practical take so far on what a cloud-connected car should look like
The biggest challenge so far is making sure it works on every model, given the crufty hodgepodge of manufacturers and designs that have hit the road since 1996. Automatic has pledged not to sell a customer a unit until it can verify it works with the customer's specific model. The team has already tested more than 200 model/year combinations, and will keep testing through launch. Aside from a few specific bug fixes, Kote says he hasn’t had to make many changes.
It could be the most practical take so far on what a cloud-connected car should look like — an area that auto-averse startup scene has mostly overlooked. Automatic is working towards a time when users and developers can access a car’s data whenever they want, and use that data to build new features. From there, it's easy to imagine more applications, from parental car-tracking to next-generation traffic apps, but the first step is getting the data off the dashboard. With the app-connector combination, Automotive has set up a remarkably painless way to do it.
Update: This article has been edited to reflect a change in Automatic's release date.
Dante D'Orazio contributed to this report.