Automatic is winning the smart car movement, but its new announcement makes little sense


smart-car-automaticIf there was any device we could stand to be a little smarter for us, it’s our cars. They cost thousands of dollars upfront, are financially draining to maintain and we put our lives at risk on the assumption that they work, yet most of us know very little about how they do so.

Cars are an Internet of Things market sweet spot. There’s the aforementioned need, matched with a huge market of existing cars crying out for connectivity. U.S. Department of Transport figures put the number of cars on the road at over 250 million and every one of those made after 1996 has a computer in it for onboard diagnostics that can be linked up to the cloud. Current mainstream alternatives are either expensive, like OnStar, or cheap and crude, like affixing a crude GPS tracking device to your car somewhere. Cars will in due course have smarter systems built into them, but the rate at which we upgrade our vehicles is slow and the existing stock of old cars represents a veritable market bounty.

“If you think about it, our cars are the most expensive computers we’ll ever own and they’re not connected to anything,” says Ljuba Miljkovic, the chief product manager for San Francisco-based Automatic, which launched in Y Combinator in 2012 and went to market with its smart car device last September.

Automatic is one of a growing range of smart-car alternatives. It’s a new space, but having been quickly picked up for retail by Apple, Best Buy and Amazon, Automatic has an early lead. As Miljkovic outlines to me, installing it is easy. In most cases, a car’s onboard computer port is under the steering wheel. The instruction manual that comes with Automatic – a small rectangular device no more than an inch or two long and wide – has three steps. “Using a flashlight might make it easier to install,” Miljkovic says, but he swears that’s the only technical device anyone needs to put one in.

If you can stomach the one-off $ 99 cost, for any mechanical ignoramus with an iPhone like me Automatic is oddly hard to argue against, even if the “Fitbit for drivers”-schtick Miljkovic trots out for it has been used by every product of its type. Automatic has an accelerometer to detect crashes, it can call emergency services or alert friends and family if there’s trouble, it can interpret engine warning signs, monitor for the three bad habits – sharp braking, accelerating and going over 70 mph – that hurt fuel efficiency the most and track spending on fuel with the help of a detailed database of national gas prices and by monitoring where you fill up. Whereas a product like Dash uses generic units that it sells for $ 10, Automatic manufacturers its version from the ground up so it can tailor functionality accordingly.

“We want the car to be just another node in the Internet of Things,” Miljkovic says. “It should be another device in the cloud.”

In light of its growing strength then – new product, big market, well reviewed by customers on Amazon and Apple alike – Automatic’s latest move, announced on stage by CEO Thejo Kote at the Launch festival this afternoon, is an odd one. The company has integrated its product with IFTTT (short for “if this, then that), a service that allows Automatic users to create rules of actions: if you arrive home, turn on the lights, if you arrive at Disneyland send a Tweet, when you arrive at your destination send a message to Mom.

The smart play for Automatic, would be to double-down on pushing product adoption. IFTTT is complicated, with a user creating “recipes” for actions it wants to couple together. The new push pairs a device not a lot of people have yet with a technology not a lot of people know about. And while some of this new functionality is practical, like teaching your car to upload a spreadsheet with trip details when you park, much of it is superfluous and a lot of the new functionality breaks no new ground. There are already location tracking apps for nervous parents and I can get Siri to send a text for me now if I wanted to.

“The car should be part of a connected digital life,” Miljkovic says. “Automatic should be an end-to-end experience.” He concedes that the car connectivity space makes so much sense that Automatic won’t be the only company to make a serious go of it. He adds though, that the company doesn’t look at the market beyond improving user experience of its own product as much as it can. To maintain its advantage, Automatic would be best served on focusing the car as its own smart ecosystem rather than linking it in elsewhere. I don’t need my car to Tweet, I need it to help me be a better driver and owner.

[image adapted from Automatic]