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Review: Automatic, a Simple, Smart Driving Assistant for Willing Drivers

Can this little device help you save money on gas?

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You’re driving too fast! You’re braking too hard! Slow your roll, woman!

For the past several weeks, I’ve heard little reminders that I’m being a little too aggressive behind the wheel, but they weren’t coming from a back-seat driver. Instead, they came from a little device called Automatic that’s designed to make you a safer, smarter driver.

Developed by a company called Automatic Labs, Automatic is a combination of a small Bluetooth-enabled dongle that plugs into your car’s on-board diagnostics port (a.k.a. ODB-II port) and communicates with an accompanying smartphone app. Together, they provide feedback about how you’re driving, fuel costs, fuel efficiency and other trip data. The idea being that with this information and with Automatic’s nudging, you can make small changes to bad driving habits and save money on gas.

How does it do that? Well, you may not know this, but braking too hard, accelerating too quickly and driving over 70 miles per hour all wastes gas. So, whenever you commit one of these violations, Automatic will emit a little chirp in an effort to curb that type of behavior.

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Automatic also offers some other useful safety and convenience features. It can remember where you parked, help you figure out what’s wrong when your “check engine light” comes on, and alert emergency contacts in case of an accident, among other things.

But is this all worth $100? The safety features alone might be worth it for some, such as parents of driving teens. But to get the most out of Automatic, you have to be willing to change your driving behavior, and that’s not going to appeal to everyone (and the company readily admits this) .

Though I was open to it, and made some short-term improvements, I ultimately fell back on my old ways, and eventually I started ignoring Automatic’s reminders. But if you’re willing to work at it, Automatic is an easy plug-and-play solution that can assist you in driving more efficiently.

The simplicity of Automatic is one of the best things about it. After downloading the free app to your smartphone (it works with the iPhone 4 and later, and devices running Android 4.0 and above), just plug the dongle into your car’s ODB-II port. The latter is available on most U.S. cars built since 1996, but the location of the port varies by year, make and model. This online tool can help you identify the location in your car. The port on my 2012 Volkswagen Jetta was located just to the left of my foot pedals.

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The app will then run you through a quick pairing process. During this time, Automatic detects your car’s VIN to pull EPA fuel economy estimates for your car, so it can compare it with actual performance later on. It takes just a couple of minutes, and once that’s done, you don’t have to do anything else. Just keep the dongle plugged in, and it should automatically connect with your smartphone whenever you get in the car, as long as you have Bluetooth turned on. You’ll hear a series of beeps as confirmation.

As you’re driving, Automatic collects standard trip data like location and distance, but it’s also looking out for the three specific behaviors I mentioned earlier.

I didn’t find the chirp alerts to be too distracting while driving, though I did feel like I was being constantly judged as a bad driver by this inanimate object. Highway speeding and hard accelerations were my biggest problem areas (oops, I guess I like to drive fast). You can silence the beeps if you find them annoying or distracting, but the app will still keep tabs on those three things.

The app is well-designed and easy to navigate. It lists trips for the current week, with specifics about distance, fuel efficiency, and estimated trip cost based on current fuel prices (the app uses your phone’s GPS to pull fuel prices based on your location). And at the end of each week, you’re given a driver’s score based on a scale of 0 to 100. Your score depends on how often you committed any one of the three behaviors — the higher the score, the better.

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My first week I logged in a whopping 42, but I improved to 91 the second week. During that time, I made more of a conscientious effort not to punch the gas pedal when leaving a stoplight. But as I mentioned earlier, I reverted back to some of my old ways, and by week three, I was down to 62. It was still pretty enlightening to see how often I was engaging in a lot of these activities — and to observe their their effects on fuel economy — but in my case, it didn’t translate into a big behavior change.

Still, there were other parts of Automatic that I found to be useful. Since I don’t have a garage space at my apartment complex, I park wherever I can find street parking, and there are many mornings where I walk out of my door and think, “Dude, where’s my car?” Automatic records the location for me automatically.

And while I didn’t have an occasion to test either of these features (thankfully), I do like that Automatic can help diagnose engine problems and contact emergency personnel in case of an accident. The latter uses Automatic’s built-in accelerometer to determine if you’ve been in an accident. You’ll receive a message alerting you that Automatic’s support staff is about to call for help (during this time, you’ll have an opportunity to cancel, in case it was a false alert), and reach out to user-specified emergency contacts if needed. It’s similar to the OnStar system available on some vehicles, but there is no subscription fee.

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One other feature that I didn’t get a chance to try is something called Learn+. This is designed for teens just starting to drive, and it promotes safe driving through gamification. Drivers earn different badges for good behavior. Meanwhile, parents have access to Web tools to monitor how their children are doing, though the company is quick to point out that this isn’t meant to be a spying tool.

On a related note, you might be concerned with just how much Automatic knows about your car and location. Automatic CEO Thejo Kote told me the company takes protecting its users’ data seriously, and does not share any information with third parties without explicit permission. You can read the company’s privacy policy here.

Automatic offers a simple solution that can help improve your driving efficiency, as long as you’re willing to take a bit of coaching and make some changes.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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