22 May 2014

By Kevin Purdy


Nicholas Barone is not a car mechanic, a change-your-own-oil guy, or even a know-how-many-CCs-are-under-the-hood type. And yet he’s become a new kind of “car person.” Car makers could create more of them too, if they gave drivers access to more data.

That’s because Barone thinks, talks and shares notes about braking, mileage, acceleration, and maintenance. He brags about achieving great mileage, especially in adversely cold conditions. He speaks a new and seemingly secret language, one that his cars taught him.

It cost Barone, a graphic designer, just $69 to enter the realm of car efficiency and diagnostic powers, by purchasing an early version of Automatic. The “smart driving assistant” plugs into the data port, which has quietly been present on most U.S. cars made since 1996. That dongle then connects to Barone’s smartphone through Bluetooth. Automatic tells him his drive to visit suburban relatives costs $2.50 each way, alerts him when he’s braking or accelerating too hard, and provides diagnostics on any Check Engine lights (as does a competing car connector, Dash).

Just those few points of data have changed how Barone drives — and how he thinks about his far-from-new car. “It kind of gamifies your driving to a degree,” he said. So what would happen if every smartphone-toting car buyer — certainly more than half of them by now — had access to at least that minimum mileage/performance/diagnostic data, and app developers could build on top of it?

What would happen is that people would appreciate the cars they own, work to get the most out of them, share their car stories, and stop thinking of their car as a black box with four wheels and a stereo. Mobile technology, in other words, could reposition cars as gadgets, not transportation utilities. If that sounds like overexcited hype, you’re probably thinking short-term. Right now, the framework is other Bluetooth devices, services like IFTTT, and your iPhone or Android. But start building out from a deeper car-to-phone two-way connection, and it’s easy to guess where it connects and leads from there.


If all these data points and app connections sound more bewildering than helpful, take a look through the online forums that exist for owners of any particular hybrid vehicle. Sure, there are complaints about recalls and computer bugs and design decisions, as there always will be. But owners of these cars can be enthusiastic, analytic, helpful and invested in understanding what their car is capable of doing. I know because I’ve become one of those owners.

My wife and I purchased a hybrid vehicle last year, one with a still-capable gas engine, but a theoretical 40-plus miles per gallon, even on the highway. We learned what kind of conditions put the car in all-electric mode, we used seat warmers instead of dashboard vents to heat ourselves whenever possible, and we figured out the unexplained cruise features. We kept track, we bragged to each other about uber-efficient trips and became informed advocates for our car.

I am, in other words, as keenly aligned with my particular hybrid, and its whole ecosystem, as I am with my chosen phone (Android), laptop (ThinkPad), and watch (Pebble). Give people data, connections and insight into how something works and, sure, sometimes you give them ammunition for complaint. But you’ll just as likely recruit them into the ranks of enthusiastic early adopters.

This, then, is a call to automakers: give us the data. Let us connect our phones and dig in. Let us see how we’re doing. Let smart developers do unforeseen things with connected cars. Let our connected cars talk to one another, talk to parking meters, talk to traffic reports. Let us be that new kind of “car person.”