Automatic launches an app store for cars

Two years ago, Automatic released a $100 Bluetooth-enabled car adapter along with an accompanying smartphone app to give you all kinds of insight about your vehicle. You could use it to track your trips, figure out your fuel consumption, locate your parking spot and even find out what that Check Engine light really means. Today, Automatic is taking that whole smart driving assistant thing one step further: It's opening an app store so that third-party apps can harness some of that same metadata too. And since Automatic's adapter works with any car with an OBD-II (Onboard Diagnostics) port -- that's all vehicles built and sold in the US since 1996 -- that means this store will be compatible with a great majority of vehicles out there. Likely one you already own.

Automatic's app store -- also known as the Automatic App Gallery -- will debut today with more than 20 apps from the likes of IFTTT, Expensify, Jawbone and Nest. It'll work with Android and iOS, plus it even supports that fancy new watch from Apple. But that's not all. Automatic is also introducing a second-generation adapter today that supports two Bluetooth streams simultaneously. One connection would be for the required Automatic app, while the other would be for any third-party app that uses the company's brand-new Streaming API, which would be used to access your car's info in real time. That API is just one of many that Automatic is also unveiling today as part of an open developer platform designed to encourage new apps.

Note that you don't need the second-gen adapter to use the app store -- it's only if the particular app you want requires that second Bluetooth connection. Otherwise the first-gen one will work just fine. The new adapter costs $100 just like the old one and looks exactly the same, except it has a slightly snugger fit.

"We founded Automatic because we feel that cars weren't and still aren't living up to their full potential," says Thejo Kote, Automatic's co-founder and CEO. "They're basically computers on wheels. They could be doing so much more." After its initial product launched a couple years ago, the company received plenty of feedback and requests for more functionality such as the ability to expense trips, special apps for teens and more specific details for gearheads. While Automatic did expand its feature set through partnerships with Nest and IFTTT before, Kote and crew knew that there was no way they could meet the needs of everyone.

"What we realized was that the best way to solve all these problems is through a model that all of us are really familiar with already," says Kote. "An app store, but for your car."

Ljuba Miljkovic, Automatic's founding designer and head of marketing, showed me the new app store, which he says is really more of a gallery. "We're just a place that brings all the applications together in one place," he says, adding that the company doesn't actually host any of the apps. "You can access all the apps right within the software itself. Some of the apps are hosted on iTunes; some of them are web apps. We're a gallery that puts them all together in a single interface."

Miljkovic and Kote gave me a few different examples of third-party apps by taking me for a spin in a car. The first was an app called OBD Fusion, which gives really detailed information like engine temperature, speed, RPM and air injection rates. The app, Miljkovic says, is really popular with gearheads and even lets you create custom dashboards with digital speedometers and MPG tracking. It makes use of that aforementioned Streaming API to get all of that info in real time. As we were driving around downtown San Francisco, I was amazed by how fast the numbers changed as he stepped on and released his foot from the gas pedal.

The app works with other OBD readers too, of course, but Miljkovic assures me that Automatic's platform offers greater security because all of the data is encrypted and read-only. "With other adapters, the app sends the request, and it puts it into the car's communication network," says Kote. "It's not secure. You don't want a badly written app to mess with your car. That can never happen with our system."

One of the more popular app categories features business-expense apps like Expensify and Concur. Because Automatic's car adapter records trips and miles automatically, you can simply log in to your Automatic account from the Expensify app, for example, and submit those trips for reimbursement. Miljkovic also showed me an app called UnMooch, which lets you split the cost of gas with friends using Automatic and Venmo. Another was an app that texted Kote's wife as soon as the car ignition started, to let her know he was on his way home.

"Software is key to the car," says Kote. "There's a pent-up appetite to use software and data in our cars. ... Traditionally the car industry isn't very good at software, but Silicon Valley is." As more car companies open offices in Silicon Valley and open their doors to the likes of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, it's clear that even the automotive industry is well aware of this. But Kote feels that it'll take years before the car industry will really step up its software game. Automatic, on the other hand, is ready to offer that software solution right now.

"We're really positioning Automatic as a company that solves the problems every driver needs to have," says Miljkovic. "Automatic connects your car to the rest of your digital life."

I asked Kote if there was any app he wanted someone to develop. "This is one app I want. I have two cars. I suspect I'm spending too much money. I want to know what if I sell one and just use Uber instead; would I save money? Is that a sane thing to do? All of the data is there, but I don't know the answer to that question. I want someone to prove to me with data that I shouldn't be owning two cars."

"The bigger question," he later pondered, "is should you even own a car in the city." And as car-dependent as Automatic is, it'll help you solve that quandary. Even if the answer is no.