Connected Car Product Review: Automatic

There's a lot going on with connected cars in 2015. This is a great year for gearheads and those addicted to car culture and technology but what if you can't afford the newest Audi or BMW? That's where products like Automatic come in. They're a way for drivers to go high tech, get connected info about their cars and connect to the Internet of Things without having to pay a $40k premium.

You may be aware by now that modern cars have computer brains that control so much of what goes on with your car, collecting and feeding information to and from the systems in the car. That's how your modern mechanic can tell what's going on with your car, almost at a glance. When you bring your car into the shop, they plug up to something called your OBD II port and read all the engine error codes. That power is now in your hands, thanks to Automatic and the way that it connects you to your automotive life. Automatic is a service, which through the Link dongle that connects to the OBD II port in your car, can tell you where you've been, how much gas you've spent getting there and back and much, much more. The dongle feeds information over Bluetooth to a an app that lives on your smartphone and provides not only an analysis of your driving habits and car health but also coaches you to better habits via squawks and beeps from the dongle itself; if you want it to.

I have to say that the folks at Automatic really thought of everything! The installation of the Automatic Link - the little dongle that attaches to your OBD II port- is very straightforward, you just plug it in. Once you've done that, you'll pair it with the app on your smartphone, using Bluetooth, and that's when things get interesting! Getting back to the claim that they thought of everything, one of the first options you're presented with when performing the initial setup is whether or not you want to be coached as a "new driver." This is Automatic's License+ program. Yes, parents of teens just learning to drive, Automatic gives you the option to set up the device, initially, as a driving coach which will beep when your young driver accelerates too fast when that light turns green, or beep when they break hard, or when they exceed a preset speed limit. It will do that for 100 hours. Here in California, that's 50 hours more than what the DMV requires teens to have behind-the-wheel to qualify to take their license test. Set up for the driver's training option is simple and straightforward and provides the parent with the option to receive email, text messages or push notifications via the app when the new driver breaks the threshold for any of the parameters you've set on their driving.

Of course, alerts to mom and dad, and corrective beeps from the Link are just the beginning. Automatic gamifies the experience by scoring drivers' performance weekly and providing a dashboard of analysis on the driving habits of the new driver. That's where you can sit down with your new driver and chat about how responsibly they've handled the serious responsibility of being on the road. Hopefully you've taken the time to either teach them yourself (or had a family member with cooler nerves if you're the excitable type) or have a qualified instructor provide the needed hours of training prior to hitting the DMV for licensing, but any parent with children drivers knows it doesn't stop there. I have to say that having this device in the car is definitely a great way to reinforce good driving habits and ensure that your child wasn't just "being good" while they were under everyone's scrutiny but go all Carrie once eyes are off them.

Other than the 100 hours that you can set up, Automatic has the option to just set up the Link to record and report the standard stuff. Of course, "stuff" being a technical term which means: rapid accelerations, hard braking, crossing a set speed threshold, decode the check engine light messages, parked car location, and Crash Alert. The first three, we've already discussed under the License+ section but the functionality you can get out of Automatic is much more robust than that. You can check the routes you take to work or school each day and try different routes through the app, or the web, to see which route is going to save you the most gas and wear-and-tear on your car.

Speaking of wear-and-tear, Automatic uses the built-in accelerometer to provide a service called Crash Alert. When you go into the settings in the Android or iOS app, and tap and turn on the Crash Alert function (it's still in Beta), it will ask you to confirm that the phone number associated with the account - the phone the app is running on- is accurate. You'll be presented with the option to have one of Automatic's agents contact emergency authorities if you're unable and contact family members as well. In case of an accident detection, a voice recording will announce that it detected a crash. The voice recording comes from the phone and will sound regardless of whether or not your phone is set to silent. The app will display the following screen and the user will have 45 seconds to cancel the alert:an agent will attempt to call the phone. If they're unable to reach you, they'll dispatch emergency services to your location and call up to three designated emergency contacts.

Hopefully, you'll never have to use the Crash Alert function, so your day-to-day use of the Automatic app will look more like the screencap above. You'll log in to the application and be greeted by a dashboard which shows you, at-a-glance, how many miles you've driven so far that week, how much time that amounted to, how much you've spent on gas and how many miles per gallon. Oh, and there's that driving score to remind you how bad a driver your are. From there, you can tap on the settings menu and have access to the Audio Feedback menu, Notifications, Brief Stops menu, Crash Alert menu and a menu which allows you to store pertinent information about your car, like the Nickname (if you have multiple cars), color and license plate info. You can also turn on the Low Fuel Warning feature, if your car supports it. From the main screen, you have an engine icon in the upper left and that's where you can see what those pesky engine error codes mean, if the check engine light is currently on. You also have the ability to see a list of mechanics in your area, based on your GPS location fix. This info is provided by Yelp, so when you see a mechanic with enough good ratings, you can click on the listing and have the option to open it in Yelp or Maps. If I were you, I'd open that in Yelp so you can read the reviews and see what's what.

What does all of this mean, and where is it going? Well, it means that if you're serious about saving some gas money, you'll utilize the features which beep at you when you mash your foot into that gas pedal and stomp the breaks unnecessarily. You'll check your route to work and see if there isn't a better way that will cost you a little less money. It's been proven that changing aggressive driving habits is cost effective but whether or not that cost pays for the one time $99 price tag of the Automatic service is up to you. What I find even more compelling than what Automatic does for you inside your car, is what it ties into outside your commute box. Automatic works with the Nest learning thermostat so you can set your car to trigger a variety of events. You can set conditions for when you leave work, like turning on the heat in your home so things are nice and toasty when you walk in the door. You can set Nest to "Away" when you turn on your ignition and start your trip, conserving energy immediately. Things really get interesting when you use the service IFTTT to set up several other variables. Common "recipes" you can set up right now are: automatically email your mechanic if the check engine light comes on, post to Facebook to let friends know when you're back in town, text your SO when you leave work and are on your way home, connect to your Philips HUE lights to turn them off when you leave the house, and more.

Overall, I really like the app design and the beeps the Link delivers to help train young drivers, or work with older drivers to help change bad habits. Add in the Nest and IFTTT connected features you really get the opportunity to extend functionality beyond what feedback you get about the health of your car and for some, that alone may be worth the price of admission.

Full disclosure: Automatic provided me with a demo unit of the Automatic Link for the purpose of this review.