You might not know it, but under your car’s dash, there’s a little connector called an OBD-II port. Nearly every car built since 1996 has one. And it can enable a lot of new-tech magic with almost no effort—and very little expense.
The OBD-II port is a diagnostic port, giving a mechanic or other technician access to the data stored in and produced by your car’s brain. That can be very handy when trying to diagnose an engine or electrical problem, but that same data can also turn your car into a surprisingly smart machine—no matter how dumb it may have been from the factory.
Combined with the latest in WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as some new developments in remote controlled relays, the OBD-II port in your car can enable all kinds of cool functionality.
While you can get generic Bluetooth or WiFi enabled OBD-II transmitters, and interface them with any number of third-party apps, for those who don’t know quite as much about cars (or just don’t want to spend the time rigging a kludgy system together), there are at least two providers of comprehensive solutions, aimed at integrating your car into your digital life.
One of the newest is VOYO, a Kickstarter project that aims to produce not only an OBD-II interface that enables data logging and remote information, access, and control, but also remote-activated relays, that enable additional security features. The basic features of VOYO include automatic alerts if something goes wrong with your car pushed straight to your phone via its own app, a dashboard that lets you track one or more vehicles and organize the information for each, a driving log that keeps track of distance, fuel economy, and more, and even remote door unlocking, trunk popping, and vehicle location. The standard VOYO system can also share data from the app to social media, send speed alerts to concerned parents, and, of course, provide diagnostic information.
But that’s not all the VOYO system enables; the company hopes to provide remote-activated relays that enable a handful of other, even more powerful feature: immobilization, a security feature that prevents starting the car without authorization; EcoStart, which operates much like automatic stop-start on newer cars to save gas; and Stop @ Park, which shuts off the engine as soon as the transmission is shifted to park. There’s also a Premium Pack which enables automated features, like automatic door unlocking or trunk popping based on the proximity of your phone, automatic immobilizing/remobilizing based on phone proximity, and more.
VOYO isn’t free, of course, but it’s not that expensive: the basic hardware runs just $100 for the lowest-priced Kickstarter package available, which includes the basic VOYO system. Once VOYO reaches the market, it expects to price the system at $160. For $200, you can upgrade to the relay-based additional functions (note that these additional functions only work on certain Ford, GM, and Toyota models). For the Premium Pack services, a subscription is required, costing just $30 per year, or $100 for a lifetime subscription. VOYO plans to deliver the first units in February, 2016.
If VOYO doesn’t sound quite like what you’re looking for, you might be interested in Automatic. Using the same OBD-II adapter technology, Automatic takes its functions in a slightly different direction—and it’s already on sale for $99.95. In addition to the route logging and fuel economy tracking features also seen on VOYO, Automatic automatically remembers where you parked your car, provides real-time feedback to help improve your driving habits to get better gas mileage, provides 24/7 crash response help when a severe collision is detected, and even has Apple Watch and Pebble Classic apps for wrist-mounted tracking of your car’s data. For Android phone owners, Automatic can even enable a “do not disturb while driving” feature that prevents incoming calls and texts from distracting the driver.
For those who’ve already made their homes smarter, Automatic might prove the right choice for integrating your car into the system, too. Automatic supports IFTTT (If This Then That) programming and automation features, which lets your car become a part of your Nest thermostat’s routine, your home lighting, and more. For example, you could use Automatic to enable your Nest to know when you’re within a certain distance from home to start the house’s air conditioning, and then have your lights turn on automatically when you pull into the driveway. The possibilities are almost endless.
Automatic also interacts with a number of other apps, including apps that can track your car’s performance for sporty driving, provide a screen display of live engine information and gauges, coach a younger teen driver to be safer and more alert, and even set up repairs with your mechanic based on the diagnostic data logged.
While many new cars on the market offer some or all of these features, it has only become more common to see them in the 3-5 years. Now, thanks to hardware and apps like VOYO and Automatic, you can keep loving your older car while still having the best and latest in safety, economy, and convenience—and it won’t even break the bank.
automotive freelance journalist