Taylor Clauson and his wife were traveling across Kansas for a Colorado hiking and camping trip when the dreaded “check engine” light came on.
“We thought, Oh, no! We’re going to be driving in the mountains,” Clauson said. “Do we have to get this fixed?”
But rather than losing hours of vacation time finding a mechanic, or worrying about a breakdown in the Rockies, Clauson used his car’s Zubie to decode the engine signal.
Then a quick call to his mechanic back in Shawnee assured him the problem was just a sensor that could wait till after their trip.
But, what the heck’s a Zubie?
It’s one brand of OBD-II adapter, a small gadget named for the on-board diagnostics port it plugs into, usually right under the driver’s-side dash. That’s the same place mechanics tap into to check a vehicle’s engine and other systems.
Besides being able to decipher check-engine warnings, an adapter and its companion app on your smartphone can help you find your car, smooth out your driving to improve gas mileage, send a call for help if you’re in a crash, and even get an insurance discount if the adapter documents safe driving habits.
Clauson, who works for an early Zubie backer, the venture capital firm OpenAir Equity Partners, said the adapters also could be set to flag any trips outside set geographic zones.
Another brand, Automatic, was started by researchers in Berkeley, Calif., who asked their early customers what other features they would like to have, and eventually opened up their software to outside developers.
“We knew there was no way we could imagine all the uses our customers could, or ever be able to build an app to do everything on our own,” said Buckley Slender-White, Automatic Labs’ head of marketing. “It’s so great to be the platform for so many partners.”
Now the outsiders have extended Automatic’s features with apps to do everything from filing driving-expense reports to letting friends know where you are to cranking up your furnace or air conditioner when you leave work so your house will be comfy when you get home.
Automatic users who want to customize their features further can use IFTTT, a service that stands for If This, Then That. It makes it easy to have an action such as turning the ignition on trigger another action, such as opening a navigation app at the start of a trip.
Zubie and Automatic — with adapters that list for $100 but often can be found for $80 — have plenty of company, too, as a growing number of startups are making the plug-in devices. Most brands’ basic apps can display data including speed, location, how fast you start and stop, and gas mileage. Typically the apps beep when there’s driving that wastes gas and indicates risky driving, such as speeding or rapid stops or starts.
“I’ve cut my gasoline use 20 percent,” said Slender-White, “and I know some people who have saved 30 percent.”
So far, use of the adapters in the U.S. is limited to a few million of the more than 255 million vehicles on the road. But that still adds up to millions of miles of data logged every day. And the adapters’ use is growing as more insurance companies offer them, and wireless companies see them as another way to offer add-on services.
Verizon, for instance, has just started Hum, its first such direct-to-consumers service, which costs $15 a month and includes the adapter. Verizon also supplies the data plans that are needed if Zubie users want their adapters to also provide Wi-Fi.
The newest adapter brand on the market, Vinli, offers similar service through T-Mobile, and AT&T and device maker Audiovox offer a program they call Car Connection 2.0. Sprint isn’t in the consumer market but has a program for business customers who use the devices for fleet monitoring.
The adapter field also has been boosted by insurance companies, which like adding actual driving data to their information when setting rates. Progressive was the first U.S. provider to offer user based insurance, and others including Allstate, State Farm and Liberty Mutual have followed.
Jeff Sibel, a public relations representative at Progressive, said the company started its program in 2008 and had gathered more than 12 billion miles of data from 3.7 million drivers. “It’s all voluntary, and a small but growing percentage” of Progressive’s customers try it, he said.
At Allstate, spokesman Justin Herndon said his company got into user based insurance in late 2010 and had expanded it to all but two states, which have some regulations that bar it.
“About one-third of our new customers try it,” he said, “and savings on premiums range from 8 to 12 percent.”
Some insurers issue their own devices or partner with providers such as Automatic or broader “connected car” systems such as OnStar and SYNC. Users get the adapter for no charge, but insurers get access to their vehicle data and usually want the device back after a few months of documenting their customer’s driving habits.
So lead-footed drivers or ones who face lots of stop-and-go traffic, or have to drive during the riskier hours between midnight and 4 a.m., could have difficulty getting any discount.
Although some companies including Allstate say they don’t penalize customers for bad results, others including Progressive sometimes do tack on a surcharge.
Another downside to the devices is their potential use by hackers. The basic vehicle networking technology predates Internet connectivity by decades and simply is not designed for security, say experts such as Kathleen Fisher, a computer science professor at Tufts University. Until that changes, they say, cars and other devices connected to the “Internet of things” will be vulnerable.
The most notorious hacks — such as the disabling of a Chrysler Jeep Cherokee in St. Louis reported in July, and unwanted access to Tesla, BMW and other General Motors models — came through other systems, and not on-board diagnostic adapters.
Still, Charlie Miller, one of the engineers behind the Jeep hacking, told The Star in an email: “I don’t do anything different on my Jeep after showing the attack, but even I would never plug anything into my OBD-II port,” given its access to critical systems.
There has been one reported instance of hackers getting into a vehicle’s system through an OBD-II adapter. In that case, some University of California at San Diego researchers managed to get control of a Corvette’s windshield wipers and brakes. The French company that made that adapter brand said a software patch fixed the security flaw.
Companies including Automatic also say they chose to make their own adapters, rather than just writing software for some existing models, to be sure they were secure.
“Our engineers think about security every day,” Automatic’s chief executive, Thejo Kote, said on the company’s website. “Our devices use multiple, redundant security protocols that are similar to what banks use. We invite outside security experts to audit our security procedures. We pay hackers” to find flaws so they can be fixed.
Slender-White added, “We take security incredibly seriously. It’s a constant journey, not a destination.”
In the meantime, Slender-White said, he expects the industry to keep growing. Witness Verizon and other big names getting involved with using the adapters to give people more data, he said.
“Our challenge isn’t what other companies are doing,” he said. “It’s that most people still haven’t even heard of this technology. Having Verizon’s advertising muscle behind this is huge.”
Adapting to being monitored
I’ve been driving almost three weeks with an OBD-II adapter in my 2012 Honda Civic. It’s fun and easy to use, and I’ve learned a few things even though I’ve barely tapped its possibilities.
To get data from the little gizmo, which is made by Automatic Labs, you also have to have an iPhone 5 with iOS 7 or later, or an Android phone running the 4.0 or later operating system. My not-so-new LG G2 running Android 4.4.2 hasn’t had any troubles.
Before plugging the adapter in, I followed the instructions to download Automatic’s app, in my case from the Google Play Store, and then synchronized it to the adapter. Only then was I supposed to plug the adapter into my car’s onboard diagnostics port, which is right under the dash on the driver’s side.
When I turn on the car, the adapter communicates by Bluetooth with my phone. If I hit the gas or the brakes too hard, or drive faster than 70 mph, it notes that — and makes a little noise. This is supposed to make you a smoother driver, but if you play the radio or a CD loud enough you won’t hear the beeps.
Anyway, I have a good commute for the device’s scoring system — 20 miles each way of mostly highway driving, with speed limits of 60 or 65. So I rarely top 70, and I have relatively few stoplights and stop signs where I’m tempted to stop and start too quickly. I’ve scored 90 or above consistently so far on the 100-point system. I do find I score worse if I’m in a hurry.
The app also displays my commute times, origination and destination points, and gas mileage and costs, along with a weekly running total. That’s great information to have, though it’s a little depressing that I spent 8:44 driving 281.5 miles last week. But I am glad I got 35.5 mpg and spent less than $18 on the gas.
In three weeks I haven’t had a check engine light come on, so I fortunately haven’t been able to test that feature. And I haven’t forgotten where I parked — yet — but the app does seem to do a good job tracking where the car is.