Scanners that can read data from your car's OBD-II port (which is in every car built since 1996) aren't exactly new; they're on-hand at every mechanic's workshop and curious car enthusiasts can buy them from most hardware stores. But few port readers are consumer-friendly enough for the everyday driver to grok.
Enter the newly announced Automatic Link, which uses Bluetooth 4.0 and a paired smartphone to deliver diagnostic info with a decidedly novel twist. Instead of just hard facts, it offers an innovative array of features that range from monitoring driving habits, dialing 911 in case of an accident and even letting you clear a check engine light if you can fix the problem yourself. Join us after the break where we give the Link a bit of a test drive, speak to Automatic's lead product guy and find out a bit more about the potential of this tiny plastic nub.
As far as the actual Link device goes, there's not much to say about it. It's, well, a tiny white plastic plug with the letter A on the front. There's an LED indicator at the top that glows red or green depending on its connection status and a speaker on the back that beeps when you've made a driving faux pas. What's interesting is what's inside; it has an accelerometer which is useful for detecting those sudden movements, and Bluetooth 4.0, which is used to transmit a set of data to your smartphone.
The app, therefore, is the real star of the show. From our initial hands-on, it seems surprisingly polished for essentially a 1.0 release. The main hub appears to be the trip timeline, which records information about each drive you had that week. It calculates what it deems to be your MPG on a trip, the ideal MPG based on whether you drove on the highway or city streets, the map of your route and whether or not you made any fuel-efficiency mistakes like braking too hard or accelerating too quickly. From this information, the Automatic app comes up with what it thinks is your driving score for that week -- the higher the number, the better your driving.
But the app goes beyond just taking note of your MPG. It also uses geolocation data to determine which gas station you just visited to fill up and will automatically calculate how much you paid based on a database of stations. As you drive around, the app will tell you just how much your driving is actually costing you based on that last fill-up and your driving speed. Of course, geolocation also comes in handy when trying to find a lost car in a giant parking lot.
Perhaps more interestingly, Automatic can also suss out the reason behind a check engine light along with an appropriate course of action. The app lets you know what the error code means and if it's a serious problem, it'll bring up a map of nearby auto shops along with their Yelp ratings. However, if the solution is a simple DIY remedy like tightening your gas cap, you can go ahead and turn off the light with the app itself, saving you time and money. Last but certainly not least, the app will dial 911 and up to three emergency contacts when it thinks you've been in an accident -- it figures that out with the data it collects from the Link's accelerometer.
We had a chance to take a test drive of the Automatic device with Ljuba Miljkovic, Automatic's chief product officer, and he told us that the Link device is purposefully "dumb." While it has the aforementioned accelerometer and Bluetooth capabilities, it relies on the phone to provide everything else, from GPS to a data connection. "If we recreated that [in the hardware], we would need to charge users a monthly fee," he said. "We thought it'd be best just to charge for the Link itself."
After about a year of development, the Link can finally be pre-ordered through Automatic's website. It costs $69.95, while the app is free. Both the hardware and the iOS app will be available in May. The iOS app works over Bluetooth 4.0 so it won't drain the phone's battery, but the standard is only available in the iPhone 4S and the 5. The Android app, however, works with all Bluetooth standards, and will be available later in the fall. For an interview with Miljkovic where he gives us a test drive and a first-hand demo of the Link, check the video below.