Automatic for the people

Automatic Adapter plugs into the OBD-II port in your car.

Automatic Adapter plugs into the OBD-II port in your car.

Vehicles manufactured after 1996 have an OBD-II (on-board diagnostic) port. Wikipedia has a great explanation about the connector. The port, usually found near the steering wheel, is used by mechanics to diagnose car trouble. In addition to troubleshooting, many consumers use the OBD-II port to tune their vehicle’s performance and keep track of teenage drivers.

I’ve been using a OBD-II gizmo called Automatic ($99) for more than a year.  The device plugs into the OBD-II port and pairs via bluetooth to a smartphone. A companion app collects trip data from the vehicle, including location, distance, mileage, time. It’s like a black box for the car. This data is displayed on a map in the app and an online dashboard. One nice feature about Automatic is that it determines the dollar cost and efficiency of each trip. It’s pretty spot on, too. My previous car — a Sonata Hybrid — was always scoring high. My current Hyundai Tucson scores well, but not as as good as the hybrid.

Here’s an demo example of how data is displayed:

The dashboard for the Automatic service displays trip data.

The dashboard for the Automatic service displays trip data.

I’ve found the data to helpful in planning trips and budgets. Automatic offers a driving coach to help improve efficiency. Quick accelerations, hard braking, and traveling over 70 mph are typical gas guzzling activities. The gadget keeps track of those for each drive, and rates efficiency on a weekly basis.

Other features include displaying onboard diagnostic codes for car trouble, a crash alarm that notifies emergency contacts, and a park vehicle locator.

One of the best features I like is the real-time MPG and fuel range display. In today’s cars, it seems like the low fuel indicator comes on after the half-tank mark is passed. My Tucson has a range calculator, but it flatlines below 30 miles, even if there is a quarter of a tank of fuel left. Automatic watches the car’s system even closer. On one recent trip, it helped me better determined how much range I had left before I ran out of fuel. My Tucson’s low fuel indicator was lit and the range in the trip odometer had flatlined. Even though an estimate, Automatic gave more detail about my remaining fuel and range.

The company has recently release a second generation. It was redesigned to include a GPS tracking unit and hardware that supports apps to connect to other online services and devices, such as a fitness tracker or a home automation smart hub. I have the second generation, but have not experimented with apps as of this writing.

For me, Automatic has more than paid for itself. In addition to low cost ($99), there is no monthly subscription fee. It can be moved between vehicles. It’s a bargain for collecting car data and providing useful features.