SAN FRANCISCO -- The do-it-yourself version of the connected car has arrived.
Some startups, impatient with automakers' progress and promising to bring older vehicles into the data-driven age, are racing to market with hardware and apps that tap into the OBD-II diagnostic port built into all new U.S. light vehicles' dashboards beginning in 1996.
These startups hope that by helping drivers watch their fuel use, driving habits and maintenance needs, their technologies will become the automotive version of the trendy Fitbit activity-tracking wristband or the Nest Learning Thermostat. And having signed deals with major auto industry players in recent months, the companies are coming to symbolize the maturation of the dashboard data industry.
The devices offer plenty of features. Automatic Labs says its gadget will send an email to a mechanic when the check-engine light turns on, or call for an ambulance if a driver gets into a crash. Zubie has a partnership with insurance company Progressive so that Zubie users can get discounts for sharing data to prove that they drive safely.
In a way, they are competing with mass-market automakers such as General Motors, Hyundai and Volkswagen, which now offer onboard cellular connections and separate smartphone apps so users can harness their vehicles' data for various purposes.
The startups' goal is to speed the transition, bringing the connected car to people who can't or won't buy a new vehicle.
"This is a tidal shift for the connected car," said Jay Giraud, CEO of Mojio, which plans to launch its first product, a $149 cellular-equipped link to the OBD-II port, this fall. "Pardon my cynicism about the connected car, but where is it? People have been waiting for a decade for all these smart cars that are yet to appear, unless you're buying a BMW 7 series."
Zubie, which sells a $99 cellular device that plugs into the OBD-II port, revealed in July that Nokia, a major automotive player through its HERE mapping service, had dipped into a $100 million connected-car fund to invest $8 million in the company. Then, last month, Zubie announced plans to launch its service in Germany through a deal with cellular giant Telefonica. The device will bear Telefonica's O2 brand and will be sold at hundreds of O2 retail stores.
"They have tens of millions of customers in Germany," Zubie CEO Tim Kelly said in an interview. "The ability to sell into that large subscriber base with an additional connected device was very attractive."
Also in September, Automatic Labs and Ford Motor Co. jointly launched an app to make Automatic's $99 device compatible with Ford's Sync infotainment system. The combination allows drivers to use Apple Inc.'s Siri voice-activated assistant in cars that did not ship with Siri onboard.