Growing numbers of plug-in gadgets can give drivers information about their vehicle mileage, emissions and other performance parameters. The latest plug-in “smart car” device, from Voyomotive, tries to one-up competitors by promising to provide 100 times the amount of usual data for a variety of driving smartphone apps.
Since 1996, any car manufactured or sold in the United States has had to be equipped with an onboard diagnostic (OBD-II) port that provides outside access to the data on the vehicle’s computers. Mechanics in auto repair shops have their own tools to access OBD-II ports. But drivers have an increasingly diverse array of consumer devices designed to display the information from their cars’ computers on their smartphones. Such plug-in devices, sometimes called OBD-II adapters or dongles, provide a way to upgrade older car models with smart car features.
On the cheaper end of the spectrum, drivers can find basic devices, in the $20 range, such as the Android-compatible BAFX Bluetooth OBD2 scan tool. Though its capabilities are limited to reading and clearing diagnostic trouble codes, and displaying engine data such as rpm and vehicle speed, that is enough information to feed dozens of apps. Among them are programs that help fleet managers, simplify things for professionals who need to expense their mileage, give helpful hints to teen drivers, automatically deliver service alerts to a mechanic, or accurately calculate the cost of a carpool so riders can pony up their share of the gas money.
For $100, drivers can purchase a device called Automatic. The gadget, which can display car information on both smartphones and some smart watches, offers feedback on driving efficiency, detailed information about engine problems, as well as automatic crash detection and and the ability to call for help.
According to Voyomotive, its VOYO “after-market connected car system,” is one of the most advanced devices in the category. The basic $100 VOYO controller includes features such as a driving log to record mileage, fuel consumption, and emissions, as well as safety features such as alerts triggered by reckless driving behavior or vehicle malfunctions.
Drivers can plug in optional smart car features via separate $50 relay devices that snap into the car’s fuse box. One feature that requires two such relays, called EcoStart, is an anti-idling upgrade that emulates the features of a mild hybrid engine. Instead of the engine running and continuing to burn fuel while the car sits at traffic lights, EcoStart shuts it off when the driver applies the brakes and instantly restarts it when the driver presses the accelerator. Another relay feature, called Immobilization, allows drivers to use a smartphone app to restrict the engine start for security purposes.
Drivers willing to pay VOYO Premium Pack subscriptions (ranging from $30 for a year to a $100 lifetime subscription) get additional smart car features such as car doors that unlock or a trunk that opens automatically when the driver approaches and is carrying a smartphone with a keyless access app. Another paid premium is an even fancier version of EcoStart, called AutoStart; it will automatically shut down a car engine based on crowd-sourced data about wait times at certain intersections.
VOYO and similar OBD-II devices designed for the mass market do not go as far as more specialized car-chip-tuning devices such as the JDM ProM performance chips that modify the car’s performance or fuel economy through the car’s computer.
Still, VOYO’s ability to turn additional control over to the driver may help separate the system from its many competitors that mostly display data and provide diagnoses. Voyomotive recently raised just over $90,000 during a Kickstarter campaign that had a $50,000 target goal, which suggests that demand exists for more sophisticated devices that can enable smart car capabilities to be plugged in and managed via smartphones.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.