What Can I Save Driving An Electric Car? Apps Can Help, Soon

Automatic Link device connects to cars' OBD-II ports to gather data for an iPhone app

Automatic Link device connects to cars' OBD-II ports to gather data for an iPhone app

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Last month, Apple Stores in the United States began stocking the Automatic Link.

And it might just point the way toward how to convince more car buyers that a plug-in electric car--or other alternatives, from hybrid to diesel to natural gas, for that matter--could make economic sense.

The Automatic Link is a $99 device that connects to a car's OBD-II data port and feeds selected information to an app on the owner's iPhone, which becomes a "smart driving assistant" with a focus on fuel efficiency.

Developed by Bay Area startup Automatic, the product monitors and summarizes the driver's routes and routines, and offers gentle audio feedback that warns against wasteful driving habits.

Automatic, for the people

The company says the app can help drivers save hundreds of dollars annually in fuel costs. It also diagnoses "idiot light" issues, contacts help in the case of accidents, and--perhaps best of all--reminds owners where they parked their cars.

Unfortunately, the Automatic Link software can't yet monitor electric vehicles. In fact, the team hasn't even ported the program to Android yet.

Gas gauge

Gas gauge

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But sooner rather than later, this kind of program could become a "killer app" to encourage electric-vehicle adoption, simply by inoculating users against range anxiety

By logging the real-world driving habits of its users, such an app could make it possible for a driver to ascertain whether a new car with a given electric range can actually meet most of their actual needs--based on data, rather than on a vague mental picture of the range a driver "needs."

A prospective car buyer might see that a 75-mile Nissan Leaf or a 76-mile Ford Focus Electric could meet every daily driving need--except for three weekends a year spent camping and one long holiday road trip.

If they could see data showing that on every other day over a few months, their maximum distance traveled was 65 miles, they might be more willing to go electric.

On those other occasions, they might be amenable to renting or car-sharing with the money they had saved on gas.

The Automatic Link is available in Apple's online store as well retail locations, and an Android app is expected by end-of-year. Any car sold in North America since 1996 has the required OBD-II data port to connect the device.

Excerpt of MyCarma Label report, by CrossChasm Technologies

Excerpt of MyCarma Label report, by CrossChasm Technologies

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Carma, for dealers

Another app, CrossChasm Technologies' MyCarma, performs a similar function--but for car buyers who are shopping right now.

The company provides OBD-II data loggers to dealerships, who install them free into the cars of visitors who soughtnew-car information.

When the prospect returns the data logger, their driving patterns are analyzed and used to generate a report (the "MyCarma Label") that predicts the real-life costs and fuel efficiency of selected vehicles, based on their actual driving patterns and distances.

The predictions' accuracy comes from the six years and many thousands of hours the team has spent developing detailed software models of automobiles. CrossChasm was spun out of the University of Waterloo team that won the U.S. DOE's Challenge X college green-car competition several years ago.

It has since won powertrain modeling contracts with some of the world's largest automakers, and verified its simulations for 174 different vehicle models--including several plug-in electric cars.

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