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The Surprising Secret Behind Apps That Track Your Driving Habits

Car-app startups Dash and Automatic help you drive better, save gas, and get help during emergencies using little-known technology that the government has required in your car for the last 17 years.

The Surprising Secret Behind Apps That Track Your Driving Habits

As Dash CTO Brian Langel jerked his Zipcar to a halt at a stoplight one morning last week, a voice from an app on his smartphone reprimanded him: "Hard-brake alert."

Eighteen minutes later, when he turned the engine off, he learned that the mistake had cost him. Though the app—Dash’s beta version—had on average given him a driving score in the 80s, today, after two hard brakes, it awarded him just 18 points. Dash also showed him the average mpg of his trip (he spent $.85 on gas), a map of the two-mile route, and how his performance score compared with that of his friends (not great). "We want to turn every car into a smart car," says Dash CEO Jamyn Edis.

Surprisingly, that goal wouldn’t be in reach without the EPA, which began mandating smarter cars long before Dash had written its first line of code. A smartphone GPS doesn’t measure the speed of a car very accurately, and a smartphone can’t easily detect crashes or bad driving. Dash and a similar app called Automatic both instead depend on a cigarette-pack-sized data port, usually located under a car’s steering wheel, for their data. Mandated in 1990 as part of the Clean Air Act, the port is part of the same on-board diagnostics (OBD) system that turns your car’s "check engine" light on. The EPA has required all manufacturers in the U.S. to install it in cars since 1996. Canada and the E.U. have similar requirements.

Though originally intended to track emissions and warn drivers of pollution-causing car problems, the OBD port also happens to be a perfect data source for turning cars into Fitbits for driving—a use that only became apparent with the dawn of the quantified self movement and smartphone. "This data point had been open for 17 years, and barely anybody had done anything with it," Edis says.

Automatic sells a $69.99 OBD reader for the port called "Link." Dash, which is not yet available to the public, will work with any wireless OBD reader, which can be purchased at auto-repair stores or through Internet retailers like Amazon. OBD readers allow the apps to track hard brakes, fast accelerations, and speeding, the core ingredients each uses to score drivers. They also give the apps data about why the check engine light is on—is it a loose gas cap or something more serious?—in addition to detecting crashes and tracking miles-per-gallon for the financially or environmentally conscious.

Pairing that info with smartphone data makes it functional. The apps save maps of all routes taken, can call 911 if you’re in a crash, and will pull up a list of mechanics nearby when there’s a problem. Dash also has a leaderboard for comparing driving scores with friends. Edis says a planned Dash API could rate driving skills for car-sharing apps, insurance company apps, or other services.

Dash and Automatic aren’t the first to discover the EPA’s mandated data source. Mechanics use it to diagnose car problems, car enthusiasts have their pick of gadgets and apps that connect to it, and Progressive Insurance uses an OBD reader to measure safe driving. But only now are apps turning the EPA-required data into consumer car analytics. What Mint has done for personal finance and a cadre of gadgets like Fitbit have done for fitness, the OBD port and smartphone pairing has enabled for driving. "Feeling more empowered, seeing where you’re driving and how much you’re spending and improving your driving habits—I think that’s kind of fun," says Automatic’s head of product, Ljuba Miljkovic. Who would have thought fun could start with the EPA?