In case you haven't noticed, cars are gradually transforming into computers on wheels.
All the things we love about our devices have become more and more integrated into our driving experience: music streaming, Bluetooth connectivity, navigation, voice-recognition, performance metrics — the list goes on. And new apps and gadgets appear almost weekly that improve our vehicles and enhance our driving experience.
Damon Lavrinc, the Silicon Valley editor of Jalopnik, says that though self-driving cars get a lot of media attention, it’s going to be at least another decade before they really start to proliferate. The story right now is that cars are becoming “yet another node in the network,” as he puts it.
What are a few of the best apps and gadgets that can make your car function better and even improve your driving habits?
Most of us are familiar with Google Maps and Apple Maps, but among navigation apps, Waze is still “very much the gold standard,” according to Lavrinc. “They’ve got a massive user base. They're pulling in a lot of data and that's giving you everything from commute times to police activity.”
Because Waze uses crowd sourcing, the app provides detailed data about exactly what's happening on a particular section of road, rather than just showing you a red line on your screen. Waze was acquired by Google a couple of years ago and it remains an autonomous unit, Lavrinc says, but now Google has started incorporating a lot of Waze’s data into its own mapping application.
If you live in a city, finding a parking spot can be one of the most frustrating parts of driving. An app called Park'n Pay has now appeared in a number of big cities.
Where this app has rolled out, drivers will find an 8-digit number on the parking meters. “You open up an app on your phone and you type in that number and then you can just pay using your credit card,” Lavrinc explains. “It makes things a lot easier.”
The app will even give you an alert about 10 minutes before the meter runs out so you can add more time from wherever you happen to be with your phone. “The way the systems have been rolling out, when one of the meter readers walks up to the car, they can actually see on their device that this [spot] has been paid for and you are good to go,” Lavrinc says.
Then there’s Luxe Valet, a service that aims to be like Uber for valet parking. This app is designed to be used at restaurants that don’t have a traditional valet service.
Prior to arriving, you set up a pick up time for your car. Ten minutes or so before you get there, somebody is waiting to take your car to a private parking lot a few blocks away. When dinner is over, they bring the car back to you.
There are a few other companies who have been experimenting with a similar idea, Lavrinc says. These apps are rolling out mainly in San Francisco, as one might expect, and most of them are still in the beta stage, but they seem to be gaining some traction.
Among these, the best one seems to be an app called Automatic. It's a device you plug into the diagnostic port in your car — the same one mechanics use if, say, the check engine light has come on.
Cars built after 1996 have this port underneath the dash. It's called an OBD II port and it allows a mechanic to plug in one of their scanners and pull in information about your car. Automatic has made a device that plugs into this port and then connects to your phone over Bluetooth. This allows drivers to access information about their car on their own. For example, if you have an older car that doesn’t tell you how many miles you can drive until you run out of gas, this device will alert you and list the gas stations nearby.
When Automatic originally came out two years ago, it was more for driver coaching, Lavrinc says. It would tell you if you were accelerating too hard or braking too hard and allow you to see how that is affecting your fuel economy. Now they are opening it up to third party developers, who can use this data as a way to bring your car into the 21st century.
If you're a performance junkie and you like to track data, the device will now be able to tie into your phone’s accelerometer, GPS and camera to record the data from your day’s driving. “You overlay throttle, brake, engine and a bunch of other data onto this screen, so you can watch it later and say, ‘Hey, I maybe braked a little bit too early in this corner or I didn't accelerate soon enough out of this corner,’” Lavrinc explains.
They’ve also developed a way for the app to communicate with the Nest thermostat, so you can increase or decrease the temperature in your house as you are about to arrive. So it can actually save you money on utility costs.
Business expense tracking
There are a number of these on the market right now, Lavrinc says. These apps can figure out how much gas you used and what the mileage was for a particular trip. It then plugs that data into software like Concur or Expensify, and automatically files it with your company to get you reimbursed.
Apps that keep track of other apps
One of the apps Lavrinc uses a lot right now is called Rescue Time, which keeps track of all the different apps he uses on his computer and tells him at the end of the week how much time he has spent writing, reading, emailing or doing other activities. Now Rescue Time can incorporate some of the data about how much he’s driving, too.
“The car, to a certain extent, is just another device,” Lavrinc concludes. “It's just another way for you to kind of quantify certain things…Being out in the Bay Area, I'm finally starting to see some of the start ups and the tech companies putting a lot of focus into automotive.”
This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow
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