Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Driving With Data: Automatic Launches App and Dongle to Track Car Usage

Since 1996, every car sold in the U.S. has included a port that can help extract data about the vehicle’s speed, fuel level and error reports. This is called on-board diagnostics, and it has mostly been the domain of mechanics and certain car enthusiasts.

Didn’t know about “OBD”? Neither did I, until I met a new startup called Automatic, and went for a ride with them to get a demo of their little dongle that plugs into the port and transmits driving information to an iPhone app.

That device, the Automatic Link, can be preordered today for $69.95, for expected shipping in May.

You can think of it like a car version of the Nest thermostat, which plugs into existing heat and air-conditioning systems to help people better control and learn about their energy usage.

Beyond fuel efficiency, the Automatic Link also has safety and convenience features. It sends free crash alerts to emergency services and drivers’ contacts. It can identify and explain which of a variety of problems triggered the “check engine” light. And it also helps remember where a car is parked. An Android version is planned for this fall.

Automatic aims to help people drive better by giving them information and feedback. So, for instance, every time an Automatic driver turns on and off her car, the app compiles a trip report that shows where the car went on a map, how many miles it got per gallon, and how much that equaled in gas costs. The app displays weekly trends and timelines that she can view for her personal information or share with other people who drive the same car.

When drivers brake or accelerate too hard, or drive more than 70 miles per hour, the device chirps at them to try to curb that behavior.

“Making small changes in driving behavior can lead to big savings in gas,” Automatic co-founder and CEO Thejo Kote said. “We’re trying to improve the car ownership experience without upgrading the car.”

Most of what Automatic provides should not take too much work on the part of the user, Kote added. Activating the device is apparently just a two-step process of putting it in the port (often found below the steering wheel) and plugging in a PIN number on the phone app.

That automation theme extends throughout the product (and the company name, of course). For instance, Automatic calculates the price of filling a certain car’s tank by correlating phone GPS information to identify a gas station, matching it to a licensed database of current gas prices, and tying that to on-board diagnostics information about the tank level.

Automatic first started in 2010, and was part of the Y Combinator program as a mobile app company. Since adding the diagnostics hardware angle, the company has raised what Kote called a “bunch” of money from investors including Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund.

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