Car trouble? There's an app for that

Not just cool and useful, the Automatic device also gives a tangible hint of the smartphone's new role at center of the Internet of things

Given all the marketing hype out there, everyone has heard about the Internet of things, even if it's not at all clear what it is. (For an informative guide, read my primer on the Internet of things.) Well, the $100 Automatic device for the iPhone 4s and later (and soon for some Bluetooth 4.0-equipped Android smartphones) from Automatic Labs gives a good example of the Internet of things in action.

Automatic's car monitor on the iPhone 5s
Automatic's car monitor on the iPhone 5s.

I've been testing this device on an iPhone 5s for a couple weeks in my 1996 Toyota Corolla; it's now available for sale from the Apple Store. It plugs into the car's engine computer port (on nearly every U.S. car since 1996) and uses your compatible iPhone as its central brain. When you get in the car, the device automatically connects to the iPhone via the low-power Bluetooth 4.0 radio (aka Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth Low Energy), sending data about your driving patterns and engine condition to Automatic's iPhone app. You get feedback on your driving habits, track the routes you've taken, and see how much money each trip has cost you.

[ Move over, smartphone -- the car is getting smarter. | See InfoWorld's recommendations for a road warrior's must-have mobile toolkit, and discover the best productivity apps for your iPad. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

How does the Automatic device do all these things? That's the Internet of things part. If all it did was communicate with your iPhone, that'd be useful but limited. But it uses your iPhone as a waystation to other resources.

If your engine reports a problem, for example, the Automatic app can check with Automatic's database to know what the error code actually means for your specific car, providing you both an alert and an understandable explanation -- much better than just seeing the check-engine light come on. It can also check your location via the iPhone's GPS and compare that to a database of mechanics, to suggest a nearby repair shop.

The same combination of local sensor (the Automatic device reading the car computer), the smartphone (your portable brain), and the Internet (the big brain and universal data source) is what makes the Automatic an example of the Internet of things in action. It's how the app can tell you how much money each trip costs you and its actual gas mileage, by reading the mileage and gas consumption data from the car computer and using current gas prices in your area to compute the costs on your iPhone.

Likewise, if you brake too hard, start too fast, or exceed 70mph, the Automatic knows that from the car computer and warbles to let you know -- a kind way to try to change your behavior. It also indicates these issues in the iPhone app so that you can see any patterns of inefficient driving, using a scoring system meant to engage you to try harder. If you tap the specific trip where you erred, it uses GPS data to show you exactly where you went astray, so you can see where you sped and for how long, where you slammed on the brakes, and so on.

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