Automatic: Nice, but Not Necessary

Editor’s note: Here’s the first post from one of our newish team members, Ben. Ben is a usability engineer with a PhD in Cognitive Psychology, and by his own account, he’s also a below average driver. Those two factoids are not necessarily related; I just don’t know what his likes and dislikes are so I’m spit-balling.

Ben applied his research chops to himself and his driving using Automatic (@automatic), a doodad that measures your driving and claims to make you a better driver. So, right up his alley.

Aside from the pure research, I’m interested in this doodad as yet another data collector for the quantified self. As we generate mounds of data through sensors, we should be able to generate personal annual reports, a la Nicholas Felton, that have recommended actions and tangible benefits.

Better living through math.

Anyway, enjoy Ben’s review.

When I first heard about Automatic (@automatic), I was quite excited—some cool new technology that will help me become a better driver. The truth is, I’m actually not a big fan of driving. Which is partly because I know I’m not as good of a driver as I could be, so Automatic was a glimmer of hope that would lead me on the way to improving my skills.

Though I will eagerly adopt automated cars once they’re out and safe, the next best thing is to get better so I no longer mildly dread driving, especially when I’m conveying others. And one issue with trying to improve is knowing what and when you’re doing something wrong, so with that in mind (and for enterprise research purposes), I tried out Automatic.

Automatic is an app for your phone plus a gadget (called the Link) that plugs into your car’s diagnostics port, which together gives you feedback on your driving and provides various ways to look at your trip data.

Automatic Link

The diagnostics port the Link plugs into is the same one that your mechanic uses to see what might be wrong when your check engine light is ominously glaring on your dashboard. Most cars after 1996 have these, but not all data is available for all cars. Mine is a 2004 Honda Civic, which doesn’t put out gas tank level data, meaning that MPG calculations may not be as accurate as they could be. But it still calculates MPG, and it seems to be reasonably accurate. I don’t, however, get the benefit of “time to fuel up” notifications, though I do wonder how much of a difference those notifications make.

The Link has its own accelerometer, so that combined with the data from the port and paired with your phone via Bluetooth, it can tell you about your acceleration, distance driven, your speed, and your location. It can also tell you what your “Check Engine” light means, and send out some messages in the result of a crash.

It gives three points of driving feedback: if you accelerate too quickly, brake too hard, or go over 70 mph. Each driving sin is relayed to you with its own characteristic tones emitted from the Link. It’s a delightful PC speaker, taking you way back to the halcyon DOS days (for those of you who were actually alive at the time). It also lets you know when it links up with your phone, and when it doesn’t successfully connect it outputs a sound much like you just did something regrettable in a mid-’80s Nintendo game.

App screenshot

One of the main motivators for the driving feedback is to save gas—though you can change the top speed alert if you’d like. From their calculations, Automatic says 70 mph is about as fast as you want to go, given the gas-spent/time-it-will-take-to-get-there tradeoff.

Automatic web dashboard

Another cool feature is that it integrates with IFTTT (@ifttt), so you can set it up to do things like: when you get home, turn the lights on (if you have smart lights); or when you leave work, send a text to your spouse; or any other number of things—useful or not!

Is It Worth It?

The big question is, is it worth $99? It’s got a great interface, a sleek little device, and a good number of features, but for me, it hasn’t been that valuable (yet). For those with the check engine light coming up, it could conceivably save a lot of money if you can prevent unnecessary service on your car. Fortunately, my Civic has never shown me the light (knock on wood), though I’ll probably be glad I have something like Automatic when it does.

I had high hopes for the driver feedback, until I saw that it’s actually pretty limited. For the most part, the quick acceleration and braking are things I already avoided, and when it told me I did them, I usually had already realized it. (Or it was a situation out of my control that called for it.) A few times it beeped at me for accelerating where it didn’t feel all that fast, but perhaps it was.

I was hoping the feedback would be more nuanced and could allow me to improve further. The alerts would be great for new drivers, but don’t offer a whole lot of value to more experienced drivers—even those of us who would consider themselves below average in driving skill (putting me in an elite group of 7% of Americans).

The Enterprise Angle

Whether it’s Automatic, or what looks like might be a more promising platform, Mojio (@getmojio), there are a few potentially compelling business reasons to check out car data-port devices.

One of the more obvious ones is to track mileage for work purposes—it gives you nice readouts of all your trips, and allows you to easily keep records. But that’s just making it a little easier for an employee to do their expense reports.

The most intriguing possibility (for me) is for businesses that manage fleets of regularly driven vehicles. An Automatic-like device could conceivably track the efficiency of cars/trucks and drivers, and let a business know if a driver needs better training, or if a vehicle is underperforming or might have some other issues. This could be done through real-time fuel efficiency, or tracking driving behavior, like what Automatic already does: hard braking and rapid acceleration.
If a truck seems to be getting significantly less mpg than it should, they can see if it needs maintenance or if the driver is driving too aggressively. Though trucks probably get regular maintenance, this kind of data may allow for preventive care that could translate to savings.

This kind of tracking could also be interesting for driver training, examining the most efficient or effective drivers and adopting an “Identify, Codify, Modify” approach.

Overall

I’d say this technology has some interesting possibilities, but may not be all that useful yet for most people. It’s fun to have a bunch of data, and to get some gentle reminders on driving practices, but the driver improvement angle from Automatic hasn’t left me feeling like I’m a better driver. It really seems that this kind of technology (though not necessarily Automatic, per se) lends itself more to fleet management, improving things at a larger scale.

Stay tuned for a review of Mojio, which is similar to Automatic, but features a cellular connection and a development platform, and hence more possibilities.

One comment

  1. Interesting stuff. Ponder the enterprise use of the data for insurance, servicing costs, and so on. And then perhaps there’s a connection between the driver’s mental and physical state and the car performance that might be measured (I find driving incredibly stressful and avoid it at all costs).

    Plus, you gotta wonder where that data goes at times and what can be done with it. I love the Tesla NY Times Review example…:)

    http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/most-peculiar-test-drive

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