Earlier this year (March), I signed up and pledged $70 for a nifty looking product by the name of Automatic. For those of you not familiar with Automatic, it is a small piece of hardware that talks to your car’s onboard computer and uses your smartphone’s GPS and data plan to upgrade your car’s capabilities. It does some handy things like monitor MPG, fuel cost and trip archiving. It also has the ability to encourage you to drive smarter, encouraging you to eliminate hard brakes, rapid acceleration and speeding.

In the last five years a handful of auto manufacturers have attempted to integrate similar technology into their new vehicles. Issues with this are that the consumer is limited to that particular vehicle, often time the data is only viewable *in* the vehicle, and most times the interfaces are clunky. Automatic aims to provide a vehicle agnostic approach to the ‘smart car’ functionality most mobile savvy users crave these days. $70 to make my archaic Jeep Wrangler a more intelligent driving machine? Yes please!

Setup

When I preordered my Automatic in March, the delivery window for iOS was May of 2013. Apparently Automatic hit production issues and delayed their delivery window to Fall. The nice thing was that they also provided pre-orders the ability to opt-in to their Beta program.

 

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I received my Automatic this weekend, and the un-boxing was pretty straightforward. Simple packaging, no manuals or anything. From here, I easily located the Onboard Diagnostics Port (OBD) of my Jeep. It’s in clear view as soon as you open the door so no problems there. Once The Link (as Automatic calls it) is installed, download the Automatic application (v.0.9.4) from the App Store, turn on your vehicle, and sync your mobile device with The Link using a simple security PIN.

 

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At this point, I began hitting snags. The app would not detect The Link. I tried several times turning my vehicle on and off, removing and firmly placing The Link back into the OBD port. No luck. After a half hour of attempting numerous combinations of startup sequences I was finally successful. The sequence I used to achieve this went in the following order:

– Jeep is running, iPhone is off and The Link is unplugged. Turned off my Sony Bluetooth stereo head-unit

– Plugged in The Link *firmly*

– Turned on iPhone

– Ensured Bluetooth was active on iPhone, launched Automatic app

– Initiated The Link setup

– It connected! 2 minutes for vehicle capabilities detection

 

Finally! I was excited to take it for a spin so I started driving around my neighborhood to initiate the Trip Capture feature. I noticed right away that it didn’t look like anything was happening, but I wasn’t sure if it was secretly working in the background. Once I returned home, sure enough, there was no trip data. At this point I was a little frustrated. I planned on sending in a support/feedback ticket, but my wife and I had plans to visit family that day and had to make a trip back to our home town so that would have to wait.

Now, this is the cool part of my experience so far with Automatic. Something unexpected. Once we arrived in Crawfordsville (which is about an hour drive for us) I checked my email and had a message directly from Automatic! They had proactively been tracking my initiation of The Link and my account on the Automatic App and saw that I was having issues. Very cool! I can only assume that the Beta process is providing valuable feedback on a number of makes/models of vehicles and my Wrangler was causing them some headaches.

 

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Following a log out of my Automatic account, a restart of my phone, and a relaunch I was up and running. Our return trip home was tracked automatically, and I didn’t even have to wake the app or do a thing. My mobile device and The Link handled everything seamlessly, which is exactly what I hoped for. A seamless experience that leaves little work for me to do but check out that nifty driving data.

 

 

The Product

Automatic as a service and product is very interesting. By providing metrics on older, ‘dumb’ vehicles, it gives the driver the ability to improve their driving efficiency, accurately track mileage, and monitor fuel costs. It has already provided value by telling me my MPG (which I had traditionally just ballparked in my head) and I have been pleasantly surprised that it is actually 1-2 MPG higher than I estimated on average. In regards to vehicle warning messages, I’ve yet to have any experience with that.

The user experience of the application itself is very straightforward. They paid close attention to the visual design, and the micro-interactions are very intuitive (tap on a trip to expand, scroll to see list of more trips, pretty simple!) The passive nature of the application, i.e. “Always-On” makes this a dream for me. I don’t want to have to remind myself every time I enter my vehicle to launch the app and make sure everything is connected. The Link automatically detects my presence with my device and begins trip capture. I have read that there are issues with application sleep/bluetooth wakeup on iOS6 but I have yet to encounter this as well.

Overall, I am excited about being able to have metrics on my driving habits, history, and vehicle status.