Automatic is a company that makes small plastic dongles that plug into your vehicle’s OBDII port to analyze your driving style and efficiency in the cloud through an app and web interface. We reviewed the original Automatic some time ago. Based on Bertel’s experience, I found the original product a bit impractical for one reason: Bluetooth. I don’t like Bluetooth. Bluetooth is unreliable, slow, buggy, and finicky in general. The idea of having to sync vehicle data from a dongle over a Bluetooth connection had zero appeal to me – I wanted something that was utterly seamless. And now, Automatic has done just that with the new Automatic Pro. Instead of relying on Bluetooth to transfer data, Automatic Pro uses a built-in cellular connection (free for five years) to send data back to Automatic’s servers. The only time you’ll need Bluetooth is during setup, then you’re free to never have the Automatic dongle and your phone speak to one another directly ever again.
That part of the experience is great. It means you never think about what the dongle is doing. It just works. And in that sense, Automatic Pro is the ideal version of the original Automatic concept. So, if you loved the first Automatic – or liked the idea, but found Bluetooth to be a hurdle to purchase – the Pro fixes that. The connection is pretty reliable on the whole, and I’ve never had the dongle fail to log a trip.
Beyond that? Sadly, I found Automatic’s app and data aggregation – the core elements of the product – were a bit of a letdown considering what could be possible with direct access to a vehicle’s OBDII port. Here, in a nutshell, is what Automatic does.
Summarizes your MPG overall and for individual trips (vehicle on until vehicle off)
Tells you how far you went and how long it took you, and maps out trips in a map UI.
Tells you and shows you on a map when it detected instances of “hard acceleration” or “hard braking” – my current count after a month is over a 80 hard brakes and over 150 hard accelerations.
Gives you a pretty meaningless and totally opaque “score” out of 100 that judges your driving based on smoothness and efficiency in some ways.
The issue lies in Automatic’s premise: ostensibly, the service is designed to make you a smoother, more efficient driver. But I don’t understand how that could ever meaningfully work.
In my opinion, Automatic provides very little actionable data for all but the most devoted efficiency enthusiasts who are willing to go the extra mile and crunch the data themselves. Showing me where I made a hard stop or acceleration was generally useless – half of them were on the freeway or major boulevards (i.e., no way I’m remembering individual instances), and there were enough that I’d have no idea what actually constitutes a hard brake or acceleration. Average MPG quickly became useless, too – sure, I could see how efficiently I was driving, but how likely are you to look at a single trip and say “Oh, I remember driving to work that Thursday – I was really on the right pedal”? You aren’t unless you are checking the app after every single trip, and I definitely was not inclined to do so. I wanted to look at trends, long-term data. And Automatic provides them… they just don’t really give insight beyond the most basic values.
You can see what your MPG was for a given period. But you can’t trend out how your efficiency has changed over time or based on time of day, location, or route. Automatic simply doesn’t have these sorts of algorithms. Sure, you could calculate this information manually… if you’re a masochist. I don’t have time for that, and I don’t intend to ever make time for it. You know what would be cool? If Automatic could learn a common start and end point I tend to go to, evaluate my routes, and show me which one tends to be the most time or fuel-efficient historically speaking. It doesn’t do that. And I’m not saying that’s trivial to do. It isn’t! But that’s the level of insight that I would be willing to pay money for. The level of insight Automatic currently provides is not.
The app, too, is a bit of a letdown. It’s supposed to give you a monthly drive style report, so I’ll have to see if that really ups the quality of the experience, though I don’t exactly expect much beyond the data the web dashboard already gives me. Aside from being critical to the initial setup of the dongle, it’s forgettable. You can view recent trip info, but the interface is janky and requires constant internet access to load up data from the cloud, and provides a far more limited view of data than the full web interface. If you’re a parent or employer, the app could be useful for the live start / stop notifications it provides when the connected vehicle begins and ends a trip (which, relatedly: these are annoying when you are the one actually driving), but other than that, I don’t see how you could ever get much out of it.
The other thing Automatic can do is work with non-Automatic apps. Right now, aside from IFTTT (which I don’t use, but Automatic does work with), the only one that’s really all that useful for non-business / professional drivers is OBD Fusion, a $4 live diagnostics and vehicle metrics app. It does work and is in many ways similar to the popular app Torque, but with a more modern interface. The thing is, this app can also work with a $15 OBD II Bluetooth dongle off Amazon – it doesn’t need the $129 Automatic Pro, and the Pro provides the app no extra functionality or advantages (it also must communicate via Bluetooth – no using that cell connection for 3rd party apps). My gripe with these apps as opposed to dedicated digital OBDII readout displays is that while the the data is “live,” it lags behind by a second or two, meaning it really is only useful for monitoring certain things or logging. And, again, I have no real desire to crunch the log numbers into insightful data myself. For the kind of person who likes this sort of tool, there are much cheaper ways to get this data than the Automatic Pro.
Anyway, at least for now, Automatic Pro seems to be for business owners and parents keeping tabs on their mobile teens. As a car enthusiast, the data and analysis it provides just don’t do anything for me – it’s not very actionable or insightful, and even the numbers geek inside of me just can’t get excited over this stuff. For the audience that appreciates what Automatic does, though, the Pro is an absolute no-brainer of an upgrade (especially considering it’s just $30 more than the original was when new). It takes away what is easily the biggest technical weak point of the product – you never have to think about the dongle ever again once it’s connected and set up. As I said before, it just works. It’s just that Automatic as a product doesn’t really work for me.