If you’ve ever had a job that required a lot of driving, you’ve become painfully aware of the true cost of car ownership. There’s the price of gas, of course, but every mile you travel also puts wear on the engine, tires, and transmission. Even stopping the car costs you money, as it wears down the brake pads and rotors.
Beyond all of that, there are other annoyances with driving, such as losing your car in crowded parking lots, dealing with the check engine light, teen drivers, and most unfortunately, automobile accidents.
Fortunately, there is a gadget that can alleviate all of these woes. Automatic (a TidBITS sponsor) sells a Bluetooth dongle (called the Link) that plugs into your car, linking it to a corresponding app on your iPhone. In turn, the app helps track your driving habits, alerting you of potential pitfalls, and provides a host of other neat features. The Link usually costs $99.95, but for a limited time, TidBITS readers can pick it up for just $79.96.
Setting Up Automatic -- The first thing that struck me about Automatic was the packaging. It arrived in a plastic hexagonal tube, with the Automatic Link at the top. To retrieve it, I had to strip the plastic wrapper, pull the silicone cap from the bottom, pull out the accompanying documentation, then reach into the tube, push a plastic tab to release the adapter, and finally pull a loop to release the adapter. Frankly, it was a pain to get out.
However, there’s a method to this package madness: it doubles as a lidded travel cup! The thick plastic is BPA-free and is perfect for taking cold drinks on the road. Not even Apple’s otherwise stellar packaging has such capabilities. And unlike my Apple Watch, Automatic came with a sticker.
With the Automatic Link freed from its plastic prison, you next need to download and launch the Automatic iPhone app. It will guide you through the setup process, including setting up an account at automatic.com.
To install the Automatic Link, you need to plug it into a gasoline-powered car with an OBD-II port, which is common to cars from model year 1996 and later. You can usually find this port between the steering wheel and pedals. When prompted by the app, plug the Link firmly into this port — it’s reminiscent of inserting a cartridge into an old video game console. Once installed, the Link is hard to notice, so don’t worry about it attracting opportunistic thieves.
Unfortunately, Automatic isn’t guaranteed to work with every car with an OBD-II port. I first tried it with my 1996 Ford Ranger, but the app displayed an error message saying there was a problem with the adapter. However, it worked like a charm with my 2008 Toyota Corolla, though I had to wait a few minutes for a firmware update.
At the end of the setup process, you’re asked if you’d like to enable License+, which is a training program for teen drivers.
Taming the Teen Driver -- License+ is an Automatic feature that offers guidance to new drivers. It acts as a bridge between merely being licensed to drive and becoming an independent driver.
The License+ program lasts for 100 hours of driving time, though it can be disabled at any time. To sign up, you have to select a driving coach, who you can invite from your contacts. The coach will be able to track your progress and your trips. You can also check in with your coach when you reach your destination, and the Automatic app can be configured to prompt you to do this when you stop in Settings > License+.
License+ takes a gamified approach to driving. As the coached driver, you earn badges for certain achievements, such as avoiding hard braking, driving on the highway, and driving at night. As you progress, more badges are unlocked.
A number of automakers, such as Volkswagen, are launching programs to track teen drivers, but what I like about License+ is that it’s a transitional program with well-defined goals. It’s a smart balance between having free-range parenting and being a helicopter parent.
Using Automatic -- Once Automatic is set up, using it is… automatic. The Link activates when you start your car, and there’s no need to launch the app while you’re driving.
The only interaction you have with Automatic while driving is a series of beeps from the Link. The Link beeps when it’s turned on, and it beeps at you when you do something wrong, like braking too hard, stomping on the gas, or going over 70 miles per hour. As a Star Wars fan, I like to think of it as having R2-D2 as my copilot.
The beeps help make you aware of costly maneuvers. Fast accelerations and speeding burn gas unnecessarily. Likewise, hard braking wears down your pads and rotors, and it could potentially cause a rear-end collision if the driver behind you can’t respond in time. You can adjust the beeps — or disable them entirely — in the app under Settings > Audio Feedback.
Another useful feature of Automatic, if your car supports it, is that it will alert you if you’re getting low on gas. Unfortunately, my Corolla doesn’t support this option.
The app’s home screen is packed with useful information. Unless you have License+ enabled, the top of the screen displays the number of miles you’ve driven in the current week, the total time you’ve been driving, how much you’ve spent on fuel, and how many miles to the gallon you’re getting. It also displays your weekly driving score, on a scale from 0 to 100, that’s based on your avoidance of fast accelerations, hard braking, and speeding.
You can also scroll back through your weekly history to see your stats for any given week. This is especially handy if you’re trying work out your gas budget.
Unfortunately, if License+ is enabled, you don’t see all of this information. Instead, you see only the remaining time left, your driver score, and how many badges you’ve earned.
On the home screen, below your stats, is a mini-map showing your car’s last known location. I often have trouble remembering where the devil I parked my car, especially at large stores and shopping malls. There are lots of apps that can mark your parking spot, but Automatic does it… automatically, because how often do you anticipate that you’ll forget where your car is? Tap the mini-map to see a full map, get walking directions with Apple Maps or Google Maps, or even share your car’s location with a friend. If you have an Apple Watch, the Automatic app can display your car’s location on your wrist.
Below the map is a list of recent trips, detailing individual stops, how much each trip cost in gas, and whether you performed any verboten actions. Tap a trip to see its route map, to share the route, or to mark it as a business trip.
If you’re a business traveler, tagging business trips may sound exciting, but unfortunately, the feature isn’t quite ready yet, as there is no way to export just trips marked as business.
Of course, the OBD-II port was originally intended for auto diagnostics, and Automatic does that, too. From the home screen, tap the car icon in the upper left to see and clear error codes. That might justify the cost of Automatic itself, by saving you an unnecessary trip to a mechanic or auto parts store.
Another major feature of Automatic is Crash Alert. When Automatic detects a collision, it can automatically contact Automatic’s call center and send a message to people you’ve designated as emergency contacts. You can designate up to three in Settings > Crash Alert. Thankfully, I haven’t had a chance to test this feature.
While the iPhone app offers plenty of information, the Web site’s dashboard provides even more. You can view a map of every trip you’ve ever taken with Automatic, see your total average gas mileage, see a daily graph of gas mileage, export trips to CSV format for further analysis in a spreadsheet, and more.
Finally, if you’re an automation fanatic, Automatic can tie into IFTTT to perform actions based on your car’s location (Jeff Porten explained this tool in “IFTTT Automates the Internet Now, but What Comes Next?,” 20 December 2013). For example, IFTTT could message your spouse to say that you’re leaving work, or, if you had a SmartThings-compatible lock, it could automatically unlock your front door when you arrive home. Automatic can also tie into the Ford Sync system in select Ford vehicles, activating predesignated IFTTT actions, hands-free. (I was unable to test this, as the most advanced technology in my Ford Ranger is a CD player I installed myself.)
Automatic Privacy -- To be honest, seeing my exported Automatic data was a bit unnerving. It features a log of which car I was driving, my starting address, what time I left, where I drove to, and even the GPS coordinates of my origin and destination.
Thankfully, Automatic has one of the better privacy policies I’ve read. All traffic, from the Link to their servers, is encrypted with 128-bit AES. Information specific to you is not shared, though Automatic does aggregate anonymized data for research purposes.
Of course, Automatic is required to hand that information over to law enforcement if it’s requested. And all of the assurances in the world couldn’t prevent some sort of data theft, as we’ve seen with countless other cloud-based services.
Ultimately, you will have to decide whether the privacy risks are worth the many benefits that Automatic offers. However, you should also consider the potential upside of having a perpetual log of your location. “No officer, I didn’t do it, it was the one-armed man! See, here’s my Automatic log from the day of the murder!”
However, it would be nice if Automatic offered an option to keep the data only on my iPhone and off the Internet.
Is Automatic for You? -- No matter how you look at it, Automatic is a great value, especially with the 20 percent TidBITS discount. Standard OBD-II scanners run about $50, and those only check for and clear error codes; Automatic does much more. Unlike many similar services, such as OnStar from General Motors, there is no recurring monthly fee. (And frankly, Automatic works better than any piece of software an automaker will likely ever crank out on its own.)
If you spend lots of time behind the wheel every day, whether for commuting or business travel, Automatic is a must-have that can help you save money, manage your gas budget, and call for help in case of an accident. Although the business tagging feature isn’t quite baked yet, being able to export the data is still handy for generating expense reports, even if you need to pick the relevant data out by hand.
Automatic is also a must if you have a teen driver. The License+ feature helps guide your teen to better driving, while offering you peace of mind.
If you’re like me and don’t drive very often, Automatic’s value proposition is dicier. However, I do think Automatic has helped me become more aware of bad driving habits. While my score has never dropped below the high 90s, my weekly average has been steadily ticking up, so I’m inclined to think that Automatic’s gentle alerts are effective.
But if you’re anxious about your personal privacy, Automatic might hit a sore spot. It is, after all, a tracking device. But as I explained above, it’s your choice as to whether the benefits outweigh the potential risks, and I think for many people, they do.
Regardless of whether Automatic is right for you, it’s a sleek, well-designed product from the packaging to the software. While there are still a few rough edges to be sanded down, it’s more polished than any competing solution I’ve seen, including those built in to modern cars.