How To Tap Into Your Car’s Computer—And Why You Might Not Want To

ReadWriteDrive is an ongoing series covering the future of transportation.

Most people know that today’s cars and trucks utilize multiple onboard computer systems. But many drivers are less aware that all cars built after 1996 have a 16-pin data port under the steering column that accesses the vehicle’s computer network. Think of it as something like a hidden USB connection for cars.

For decades, only auto service technicians had a way to plug into the so-called onboard diagnostics (OBD) port, so they could read and interpret the fault codes that trigger dashboard warning lights. (Ka-ching!)

See also: The Supercomputer In Your Driveway

It was only a matter of time before enterprising technologists would figure out how to tap into the OBD port and beam the data via Bluetooth to smart phones carried by drivers. Shouldn’t you, as the owner of your car, have ownership of—and access to—the data stored onboard?

The answer is a resounding “Yes,” for the creators of a wave of hardware-software car-based telematics aftermarket products—including Automatic, Mojio, Dash and Truvulo. The first of these products to hit the market is Automatic. I’ve had it running on our 2006 Toyota Prius for the past few weeks.

We’ve Got the Data—Now What?

The two basic components are a dongle that snaps into the port and a mobile app. Remarkably, all of these competitors offer strikingly similar features to drivers, including interpretation of engine warning signals, crash alert notifications, route tracking, eco-driving feedback and a way to locate a parked car.

Why are they so similar? Because these offerings are all essentially a solution in search of a problem. You can imagine simultaneous whiteboard sessions in which programmers try to figure out what cool things can be made from car data—and basically coming up with the same set of first ideas.

The setup for Automatic was a breeze. Download the app. Plug in the dongle, which Automatic calls the “Link.” Start the engine, and now all your trips are logged on a map, with start and stop times, miles driven, miles per gallon, and likely fuel costs based on local prices sourced from the web.

I completely understand this impulse to help drivers with more eco-efficient driving. I’ve been reporting on hybrid and electric cars for more than a decade, and have seen every imaginable variation of dashboard display that encourages fuel parsimony by rewarding drivers with virtual flowers, trees, butterflies and eco-scores. So-called hyper-milers push this to the extreme with driving at 40 mph on highway shoulders, and generally making every other driver crazy with their slo-mo antics. (That guy apparently on Quaaludes in front of you in his Prius? A likely hyper-miler.)

Sorry, but for most drivers, this kind of high-tech eco-nagging only goes so far. Within minutes, my wife and I turned off Automatic’s annoying beeps that indicate jackrabbit accelerations, speeding, and hard braking. Even the most devoted fuel-sipping hybrid driver might start to ignore the app after a few drives as old habits settle in. Besides, many cars have MPG readings on the dashboard, which are quite sufficient to indicate whether or not you’re undermining your car’s efficiency.

I thought that maybe the mapping feature would help my wife and me figure out the quickest routes for our kids’ school carpools. However, the size of the map image in the app lacked the detail we needed, and what we did learn confirmed that our zigzagging made little difference in driving times.

Great Benefits—In Theory

The two more useful features—dubbed Engine Health and Crash Alert—could arguably justify Automatic’s $99 purchase price by themselves. Unfortunately for my evaluation (though fortunately for me and my family), we didn’t experience any engine or safety problems during the past few weeks. Therefore, I am unable to comment on the effectiveness of these two features.

Theoretically, Engine Health would allow me to read the engine codes responsible for firing up a “check engine” light. Given what even the most honest mom and pop mechanic charges these days, that feature alone could return my investment on Automatic. But a quick perusal of Automatic’s community forums reveals a number of customers complaining that the app could not find fault codes, or did not provide enough information to make them truly useful.

Considering that emergency notification services such as OnStar cost around $200 a year, the one time $99 cost of Automatic could serve as the poor man’s version for some drivers.  During the setup process for Crash Alert, still in beta testing, you identify two phone numbers of loved ones that would receive a text message in the event that the Automatic dongle’s built-in accelerometer detects a crash scenario. It will also automatically report the crash to local authorities, according to Automatic.

Again, though, there are caveats. If the Bluetooth connection is lost during the crash, your phone is damaged, or you’re out of a coverage area, the crash feature might not work. There is a quantum difference between this kind of discount aftermarket product and the mature type of built-in concierge emergency service provided by automobile manufacturers, albeit at a higher cost.

Works in Progress

Despite my grumblings, Automatic is a noble attempt at providing car-connected services at a fair price. The interface is slick and easy to understand. My gripes aren’t with the execution, which is well done, but with the concept itself.

To see how things evolve, we should keep our eyes on Automatic and its fast-following competitors. Mojio, for instance, is apparently taking an open platform approach by emphasizing the availability of a developer’s kit, which would allow the crowd to come up with its own bright ideas for OBD-based applications for cars—including a wide range of remote tracking possibilities, such as geofencing for teenage drivers or sending your location to friends. Mojio is planning to create its own store for downloading such apps.

Like Automatic, Mojio uses its own proprietary dongle, which you can reserve (but not yet purchase) on the company’s website for $149. That’s also what it charges for downloading the SDK.

Perhaps The Magic Price Is … $10

Another player, Dash, takes a similar approach to Mojio—but divorces the dependency on custom hardware. Instead of charging $100 to $150 for the dongle, the Dash website links to Amazon, where users can purchase a generic Bluetooth OBD dongle for as low as $10. Then it’s just a matter of downloading the Dash app, which is currently available for Android, and promised soon for iOS.

Truvolo and Clickdrive, not yet taking preorders, steer in a slightly different direction by apparently trying to build a more robust set of connected car applications on a data-rich platform.

Barrier to entry is low, so it’s likely that there are other competitors I haven’t yet discovered—all trying to utilize car computer data to make car ownership cheaper, safer, and more connected.

But here’s the key question: What can these independent aftermarket products provide that beats the latest and greatest car connectivity features, created by major automobile manufacturers, and placed right on their cars?

Images courtesy of Automatic

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