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How to Make your Car Smart

Posted by: Erik Bjornstad

Lots of people we know now own these new devices called Fitbits – little wearable computers that track how much activity they do, how they sleep, their calories burned, all that kind of stuff. It makes you marvel at where modern technology might take us next.

how-to-make-your-car-smartYou can do a lot of the same things with your car. Most everyone has a smart phone, and with a little piece of hardware and one of the new apps like Dash or Automatic, you can have a “smart car”, too.

They don’t make cars like they used to

In this case, that's not a bad thing.  Computers have been standard on cars for more than 30 years.  And every vehicle made in or imported into the United States since 1996 has to have certain “OBD-II” compliant computers that basically make them more powerful than the computers that sent the first Apollo astronauts to the moon.  Cars since that time have used computers to do a myriad of things that most drivers have no idea of. But up till now, there wasn’t anything useful that us drivers could personally do with that information.   If your check engine light came on, you (or your mechanic) could use an expensive code reader to see what the computer diagnosed as the problem. But that’s of pretty limited utility and interest to most people.

Enter the age of the app

This is now 2015 and there’s an app for everything.  Just like there are apps to track the state of your body, there are new things consumers have access to that use the data already generated every trip by their car’s computer.

Want to be a better driver? There’s an app for that. Want to save gas? There’s an app for that. Can’t find your car? There’s an app for that, too.  Actually, most of the apps you download can do all of those things together. 

So what do you need to make your car smart?

Two things – first, you need to get what they call an “OBD Adapter”.  That’s a fancy name for a Bluetooth adapter/transmitter for your car.  There are several kinds available, both of them easily available through Amazon.com.  One by BAFX products only costs $24. A more expensive one by Scantools costs $69 but offers more features (plus has the advantage of you being able to leave it plugged in all the time without draining power from your car’s battery).  Either one of them would work.

After you get the OBD Adapter, you’ll need to find the place to plug it in. For most vehicles, it’s going to be located under the dashboard. Your owner’s manual should show you exactly where it is. The adapter should have a little light that comes on when you’ve got in properly plugged in.

The last thing you need is an app to help make use of all the information the OBD Adapter is going to transmit. The two most popular choices are Dash and Automatic.

Dash is an Android only app, though they are beta-testing a version for iOS.  The first good thing about it is that it’s free. It’s also well designed and does a lot of useful stuff.  It will show you real time data as you are driving.  How fast you’re going. Your engine temperature.  Battery voltage. Tons of other stuff to satisfy even the biggest car person. But it also maintains your trip history, so you can keep track of all sorts of stuff including gas mileage and how much each trip cost.  And last but not least, it tells you where your car is parked. If you ever lose it in a vast parking lot, it actually generates Google Map directions to take you exactly to where your car is. How cool is that?

Another choice is an app called Automatic. It costs $99, largely because it comes with its own OBD Adaptor so you don’t have to buy it separately. It’s really easy to install (even shows you step-by-step where to do it on your particular car). It doesn’t give you nearly as much information as Dash, but if you don’t need to know in real time how hot your engine is, you may not care about that.

Start driving and experience the future

Once you step into the world of having a smart car, you’ll never go back. The apps even rate each trip to give you feedback on how you can improve your driving. That will probably pay for everything by itself over time.

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This post was published on June 10, 2015 and was updated on June 10, 2015.

Topics: Car Care