An Automatic smart car? My month with a data-driven app


6 min read

I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials. Let an insurance company stick a tracking unit in your car to measure your driving and potentially save on insurance rates. While saving money always sounds attractive, I wasn’t sure I was ready to give that much data away without first testing it myself.

Enter Automatic, a new hardware and smartphone app combo that can communicate with your car’s brain to unlock a whole word of insight. It can track your hard brakes, your fast accelerations, and your high-speed sessions all in an effort to make you a safer driver and save you some gas, which can save you some real money.

Automatic in action

Along with the driver action tracking, Automatic logs a trove of useful information about each trip you take: the total distance, total time, total fuel cost, avg MPG, a full GPS route, and more. If you’ve ever used a fitness GPS app on your phone while jogging—it’s like that, for your car, times ten. I’m getting all nerdy just thinking about it.

Getting Started

To use the app, you’ll need the $99 Automatic Key, a small dongle that you’ll plug in under the dash. Automatic claims the Key will work in virtually any car made since 1996, so my 2007 Volkswagen Rabbit fit the bill.

Automatic in action

Installing the Automatic Key took about 15 seconds, and pairing with the app took another few minutes. After a firmware update, the Key was tracking drives and logging data without any issue.

The Key stays permanently installed under your dash, and communicates with your phone (iPhone and Android supported) via Bluetooth every time you get in and out of the car.

That also means that Automatic is able to track your last known location (aka “Where’s your car, dude?”) with pretty spot-on accuracy. The few times Automatic suggested my car was somewhere other than I left it, I realized my wife was driving the car and I’m a forgetful idiot.

Using the app

The app offers a handful of useful features, both for training yourself to be a better driver and for studying usage habits. Let’s run through my favorite features:

Driver score

Using Automatic day-in and day-out will start to paint a larger picture about your driving habits. Along with in-app tracking, the Key can make an audible noise to alert you of hard braking, slamming on the gas, or speeding for prolonged periods. These things aren’t just often unsafe, they waste gas.

I’ve always heard that rolling to a stop was better than using your brakes, because you’ve wasted the gas it took to get to full speed. And peeling out may seem cool, but or course it wastes a ton of gas. Even driving above 70MPH can measurably affect your MPGs.

Automatic suggests that by tracking these actions, and keeping score, you can train yourself to, over time, become a better, cheaper driver.

My score is even better

The good and bad news is that my score (and my wife’s score) have been 95+ since we started driving, so any improvement has been hard to measure. On the bright side, we totally rule at driving, and now have some data to prove it.

Check engine light

automatic-check-engine

If your car is in less-than-ideal health (cough* sometimes guilty cough), you’ll appreciate that Automatic is capable of reading all of the *check engine warnings your car is throwing, something that would normally require a mechanic.

Of course, if you’re like me, you won’t be able to do a ton with this knowledge, but at least you’ll know if the mechanic is trying to take you for a ride when you finally take your car in to get serviced.

Trip data

Every time you start and stop your car, Automatic will log a trip complete with time on the road, actual dollars spent on gas, and more. While this data has always been possible to extrapolate from your own usage, it’s super handy to have an app just doing it for you, automatically. (Oh, now I’m starting to get it.)

Automatic even has IFTTT integration, the most-awesome service that allows you to string together all of your other smart services. Drive for work? Then have IFTTT log all of your Automatic trips into a Google Spreadsheet. Worried about your car? Get an email every time it starts. The possibilities are endless (as long as they involve your car).

Parking location

I touched on this earlier, but I wanted to mention it again for the list skimmers: Automatic tracks the last place you left your car. You don’t have to do anything, you just hop out and Automatic knows when the Bluetooth connection has been severed.

Conclusion: Smart Enough

In my first month, Automatic seems to be living up to its claims. I’m tracking my driving habits (and teasing my wife about hers), I’m seeing how much gas is really costing me, and I’m able to read my check engine light. I’d say that’s worth $99.

If you've ever used a fitness GPS app while jogging- @Automatic is like that, for your car, times ten.

If that still seems steep, allow me to mention that Automatic has some of the best support I’ve ever encountered. When I first got my unit, it wouldn’t connect, and I was considered a return. After a few (very in-depth) emails with Automatic, I had things working. They answered every single question, along with some I didn’t even ask. That’s not something you’ll find with a cut-rate OBD (that’s on-board diagnostics) dongle from Amazon.

I’m still waiting to see if Automatic will pay for itself, but in the meantime I’ve got a killer toy that’s unlocking data from my car I never knew existed. How smart.

  • Cool that they offer premium support. I’ve been using the Dash app ( https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.dashlabs.dash.android ) and a generic Bluetooth ODB adapter I got from Amazon.

    • Arthur

      Dash seems to push more social features. Not sure how heavy social integration is with Automatic but I know it’s one of Dash’s main features.

      • Yeah they give you the ability to compare your driver score with friends which is cool. I enjoyed it but stopped using it every day after awhile. Guess it would be nice to see a monthly report of how much you saved (like what Nest sends out).

      • clarklab

        With driving stats, I’m marking social as a “nice to have”. I can think of a few times when I’d want to share my stats, but I doubt I’d use it enough to make it a main focus of the app.

  • Question, when will Zebra show me which providers offer usage based discounts for having an ODB tracker like this?

    • clarklab

      We’re working on it, hoping to have something to share soon.

  • Andrew Mitschke

    I want one. However, I’m not sure the data would keep me interested for more than a few months (like my fitbit). Might give it a whirl though as I really enjoy tracking total trip time, distance, and mpg and this would be a pretty great replacement for the pen and notepad in my glovebox.

    • clarklab

      I have a feeling if I drove for a living this thing would be killlller. As it stands now, it’s just a super-neat toy.

      It’s not an app I’m in and out of multiple times per day, but it’s really nice to have the data available if you need it.

  • Dima Aryeh

    For the record, it’s compatible with cars 1996 and up, not 1997. OBD II was standardized in 1996, and almost all cars of the year will support the Automatic dongle. My 96 Toyota has the port and works great.

    • clarklab

      Good catch! And what dongle are you using?

      • Dima Aryeh

        I use a generic ELM dongle with the Torque Pro app. I like the idea of Automatic, but I could never justify the $100 for what is basically a generic dongle with added DRM. I hear Dash is a good replacement for Automatic, and it works with ELM dongles.

        • clarklab

          This certainly doesn’t apply to everyone, but I went through 2 generic OBD devices from Amazon that wouldn’t physically fit into my car before I bought the Automatic. The plug was correct, but the unit was physically too long to fit in the tiny gap that VW had left me up under the dash. Automatic was the only one making a dongle tiny enough to work.

          • Dima Aryeh

            Very interesting. I ended up buying a higher quality one, not a cheapo eBay one. It’s small enough to fit everywhere, including the small space of a Miata. It’s all about the money you spend I think.

  • Good read, man. Thanks for the info.

  • Jon

    The scoring is pretty pointless though. I just had my best MPG week by a million miles (>10mpg over my normal rate) but got a score of 43 because I had 72 minutes over 70mph.