Lately I’ve been writing a lot of columns about cars. One reason is simple: I’m driving more, and when you spend time in your car you can’t help but think about it. But it runs deeper than that. Between Tesla coming of age and Toyota’s announced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, it feels like cars are getting really smart — with technology leading the charge.
Case in point: The news media made a big deal (totally unjustified, in my opinion) about a handful of battery fires in the Tesla Model S late last year. Never mind that these fires occurred after high speed collisions. Or that there’s an infinitely higher risk of fire from a gasoline-powered engine.
The big story here is not the fire, it’s how Tesla responded. The company issued a statement that it would release a software update to all its cars that raises the suspension while driving at high speeds, to avoid hitting objects that could scratch the batteries and spark a fire.
Let’s hit pause here for a second. When was the last time your car company addressed a safety issue—or any issue—by streaming an update directly to the vehicle? And since when did software replace mechanics and monkey wrenches when it comes to adjusting a car’s suspension? The point is, auto manufacturers are now engineering vehicles in the same manner as smart devices, which bodes very well for consumers. No matter what make and model you drive, it’s going to become easier to monitor your vehicle and maintain its condition. And you won’t have to schlep to the dealer every time something breaks. Winner!
This inspired me to dig around for other smart-car technologies, new devices and systems to improve your driving experience. As always, I’m happy to report that there’s an app for that.
It’s called Automatic: a connected monitoring system that turns your entire car into a smart device. It’s not cheap. The wireless “Automatic Link” costs $100 and plugs in to a data port underneath your car’s dashboard. Automatic taps into your car’s computer systems and constantly monitors engine performance, speed, fluid levels and a trove of other data that was previously available only to mechanics. Now that data is processed and streamed directly to your smartphone, in real time. (See video below.)
How does all this help you, the driver? For starters, Automatic tracks your driving patterns and gives advice on how to drive more efficiently. It detects potential issues with your car’s performance and delivers instant alerts when something’s amiss. And for those of you who didn’t major in hieroglyphics, it deciphers those strange warning lights on your dashboard, such as the dreaded catalytic converter symbol.
Since Automatic is always connected, it can detect when you’ve had a serious accident and automatically alert authorities of your position. Even better: It remembers where you parked, which comes in handy at crowded shopping malls. Hey, life is all about simple pleasures.
The only major drawback, is that the system won’t work with older vehicles, many of which don’t have connection ports and would benefit most from additional attention.
Of course, when it comes to cars, there’s always a race. Automatic has a competitor in the rearview mirror. It’s called Dash, and while that system was only released late January, it promises to raise the bar on car monitors by adding social networking and data sharing among driving peers.
One final thought: You can probably get a lot of the same functionality by using OnStar or the monitoring services that come with many modern vehicles. Or you can purchase single-purpose apps that help locate your car or track maintenance schedules.
Automatic and Dash are better because of the data—and how they pull it all together into a unified system. If they can deliver on their promise, with seamless connections and easy-to-use smartphone apps, then your car—and the way you drive it—will definitely be ready for life in the fast lane.