DETROIT -- Don't underestimate the power of something small and cheap to shake up old, powerful industries.
Just ask cable TV providers, which are losing customers to streaming services such as Netflix as customers plug thumb-drive-size dongles such as Google's $35 Chromecast and Amazon's $40 Fire TV Stick into their older high-def TVs.
For automakers, a similar risk is emerging from the OBD-II data port that became standard in U.S. cars in the 1990s. Well-funded startups such as Automatic, Vinli and Zubie are selling under-the-dashboard dongles that can plug into a car's electronics through these ports and communicate data wirelessly to a smartphone or computer, effectively turning any car into a connected car. (Dongles are small pieces of hardware that can be plugged into other devices to add new functionality, such as networking or wireless communication.)
Automakers rarely try to tangle with sellers of aftermarket parts. But in the case of dongles -- which threaten automakers' control over the connectivity services that increasingly define today's vehicles -- there's now some pushback.
Mercedes-Benz late last year began testing its own device known as Mercedes Connect Me in Germany, with a market launch to follow in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands this spring. If all goes well, the device will be offered elsewhere in Europe and overseas, including in the U.S.
Mercedes-Benz's gadget offers many of the features that have lured customers to Automatic, Vinli and Zubie, such as the ability to remotely check the fuel level of a car, track mileage for expense reports or find a lost vehicle. This is especially useful for older vehicles, which lack the built-in capabilities of modern connected cars.