What does it actually do?
Automatic Labs' Automatic and its companion smartphone app are intended to make monitoring your vehicle's performance as simple as monitoring your personal performance with a Fitbit or a Nike FuelBand. As you drive, the Automatic sensor -- which plugs into your vehicle's diagnostics port -- monitors your fuel economy, acceleration, deceleration, and speed. At the end of each trip week, Automatic compiles all of this data via the app and assigns a driving score. At the end of each trip, the app also compares your fuel economy with the EPA's estimated values for your particular vehicle and lets you know how much the trip cost you using real-time fuel prices downloaded via your smartphone's data connection.
Meanwhile, the app is also tracking and logging your GPS position, taking advantage of your phone's A-GPS sensor, and can show you past trips and routes on a map to let you know where you've been and how you got there. (This can be useful for helping drivers learn their driving habits and in planning future trips.) At the end of each trip, Automatic also automatically logs the GPS position of your parked car so you can navigate back to your ride.
If your car throws a Check Engine light, with the Automatic app you can download the trouble code that caused the light to illuminate and cause an automatic search of an online database to explain what that code means and whether you should see a mechanic. In the event that the code was caused by something simple, such as a missing fuel cap, Automatic will also allow the user to clear the code and the Check Engine light.
Finally, should the Automatic's built-in accelerometer detect that you've been in a crash, the app can automatically contact emergency 911 services with your name, current location, and vehicle description. If that crash was just a really, really big pothole, you can cancel the emergency call with the app on your smartphone. The early version of the Automatic software that we tried out listed this feature as "Coming soon," so we were unable to test it.
How is this different from other OBD-II readers?
One of the problems that many people have with fuel economy monitors and other diagnostic devices is that they require quite a bit of know-how and inputting of parameters to get them working properly. (I'd wager that three out of five people that I know don't even know their vehicle's engine displacement.) Even I have a hard time tweaking most OBD readers to accurately report fuel economy for CNET's Chevrolet Aveo test car.
Like those fitness devices mentioned earlier, the Automatic Smart Driving Assistant pairs with the Apple iPhone 4S and 5 via a Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy connection, to preserve as much of your handset's precious battery life as possible. There's not much setup involved, Automatic's designers have tried to make the system as plug-and-play as possible, walking the user through a few short setup steps via an in-app tutorial.
First, of course, you need to install the free Automatic app on your iPhone and fire it up. On the back of the Automatic hardware, you'll find a six-digit PIN that the app requires. Next, simply plug the device into your car's diagnostics port with the vehicle's ignition in the off position while the app automatically pairs the devices with the phone via Bluetooth. Finally, the app will notify you to turn the ingition to the on position to fire the vehicle up; meanwhile it will be capturing and checking the information it gathers against Automatic's online database to automatically determine the make, model, and year of your car and information about its engine, guaranteeing the most accurate fuel economy readings without your having to know anything about your car. It will also be gathering EPA estimates for fuel economy to be compared with your actual performance later.
Automatic Labs tells us that most vehicles will be automatically recognized -- our tester vehicle, a brand-new Range Rover Sport, certainly was. If your vehicle isn't recognized during the pairing process, you'll be able to scan your car's VIN bar code to complete the data collection, or manually input the data.