In June I wrote about Hum by Verizon but I’m now testing a similar device that, unlike Hum, doesn’t require a monthly service fee.
Listen to Larry’s full interview withAutomatic co-founder Ljuba Miljkovic
To review, Hum by Verizon is a device and service that works with almost any car built in the last 20 years that helps you diagnose possible mechanical problems, tracks your vehicle’s location and speed, provides emergency assistance and locates your car if it’s stolen. The device also has a speaker/microphone that allows you to call for help in an emergency. Other features include driving history and speed and boundary alerts, which might be useful if you have a teen driver.
The hardware consists of a small plug-like device that you insert into your car’s on-board diagnostic (OBD) port, which is also used by mechanics to diagnose problems. The Hum device costs $29.99 plus a $20 activation fee, but there is also a $10 monthly fee, which covers the cellular connection that Verizon provides to make sure the device is in contact with its automated network and its emergency response team as well as the cost of providing that emergency response, plus roadside assistance such as towing, jump starting or changing a flat tire.
Hum’s $10 monthly fee seems reasonable considering all you get, but if you’re willing to give up a few services, you can get the basics from Automatic with a one-time $129 purchase and no service fee.
Automatic, also gives you an OBD device and an app for either Android or iOS. Like Hum, it will warn you if there is a mechanical problem and tell you what’s wrong. The $129 “Pro” version also comes with an embedded cellular modem, but they don’t charge you a monthly fee. There is also a $79 “lite” version without that modem and without some of the service’s most important features, like the ability to detect and respond to a crash or locate a missing vehicle.
Automatic doesn’t come with a way for you to call or speak to an emergency response team, but if the device detects an accident, their response team will call your cellphone to see if you’re OK and dispatch whatever services you need. If they can’t reach you, they’ll call a nearby emergency response center and report your location. You also have the option to provide personal emergency contacts who they will call in the event of an accident. Automatic won’t dispatch a tow truck, but many people already have that service through an auto club, their car’s warranty or their insurance company.
Two of my favorite Automatic features are trip and parking reports. After you park your car, the app displays when and where it was parked. There is even a link for walking directions that displays a Google map showing how to walk to your car. You can also manually set a “meter reminder” and take a picture of where you parked. (Even without the app I sometimes photograph nearby businesses or street signs or parking lot signs in case I forget where I parked.)
The trip report shows your starting and ending locations, the time and distance of the trip, your miles per gallon and how much the trip costs. For example, on Tuesday I drove from Menlo Park to San Francisco. The app told me that it took one hour and 10 minutes to traverse 29.9 miles. My 2016 Prius got 64 miles per gallon and the trip cost about $1.35 for gas.
The app also gives weekly stats and a monthly “drive style” report. I’m proud to disclose that the app told me my city driving style is “35% smoother brakes/accels than average,” which is slightly better than my highway driving style. That could explain how I’m beating my Prius’ EPA estimated gas mileage.
Automatic has an application interface that works with other apps. For example, you can link to Expensify to import your work-related mileage so you can be reimbursed or deduct them as a business expense. There is also a link to Jawbone’s fitness app so you can see your driving and physical activity in one place, which might just prompt you to drive less and walk or bike more.
Seriously, when I analyze my stats I now realize that I’m taking too many short car trips, which -– in good weather –- could be made by bike or even by foot. There is even an Amazon Alexa “skill” that allows you to use your voice to command an Echo device to ask Automatic “where is my car,” “if I need gas” or “how far I drove last week.”
You can also use the IFTTT protocols (“If This Then That”) to link Automatic to all sorts of other devices such as automatically turning down your Nest thermostat when you leave home, being notified if the car leaves a certain geographic area, log trips to a Google spreadsheet or turn on your lights when you arrive home. It’s surprisingly easy to configure these from within the Automatic app.
If it weren’t for the service costs, I’d still probably go for the Hum or – for GM cars – the OnStar service, but I like not having to pay monthly fees and, since I never drive without a cellphone, I’m already covered should I ever need to make an emergency call. Automatic’s purchase price is $80 more than Hum’s, but over a five year period it will cost you $520 less, which is why I’m about to buy a second Automatic device for my wife’s car.