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The OBD2 port – a common interface for car electronics originally developed to ensure that vehicles were compliant with emissions standards – could be the back door entry route to connected car services for millions of drivers and vehicles.

Automotive OEMs tend to focus on the fabulous high-definition consoles that are increasingly being built into new models, and which they hope will differentiate their products and help them reengage with the always-connected generation of consumers. But vehicles are replaced slowly, and that leaves a huge addressable market for connected car services that can’t be reached via builtin smart head units and consoles.

Traditionally this market has been addressed by professionally installed aftermarket devices – black boxes – for services like stolen vehicle tracking and usage-based insurance. The cost, and the inconvenience of this has been a barrier. But OBD2 devices offer a self-install route that really is trivially easy, and should present no problems for anyone who has ever set up a TV.

In case you’ve never noticed it, the OB2 port is a slot with a series of pins in it, a bit like a SCART socket, just under the dashboard.  On my small British car it’s just to the left of the steering column, about where my knee goes. Mine has a flip up lid, into which I can just plug an OBD2 device. Although it was originally developed as a port for scanners to enable diagnostics on vehicles when they were stationary, the OBD2 port has become the basis for a host of innovative connected car services. There are several players who have jumped into this nascent market, and – considering that the port itself, and the data that flows over it, is absolutely defined by the standard – there is a wide range of different business models and service concepts.

OBD2 apps

Some providers have gone down a conventional smartphone app route.  These use a device that itself has no direct connection to a back-end platform, but connects locally to a smartphone instead. Apps like this include Dash, Torque, hobDrive and lots of others, for Android and IoS.

The very cheapest devices use Bluetooth for connectivity. It’s possible to pick these up for as little as US$10. Others use WiFi in much the same way. In either case, the local connection enables the OBD2 device to synch with the driver’s smartphone, and that’s where the processing takes place. Services are delivered by  downloadable smartphone apps, which can provide the user with detailed information about how they are using their car based on information gathered over the port. This can include fuel consumption data, trip logs, engine performance information, and driving style – hard braking, acceleration, and so on.

OBD2 connected services

Other companies offer services based on OBD2 devices which include built in connectivity. The devices include a cellularmodem, and usually a GPS receiver for positioning information. Building the connectivity in immediately enables some new kinds of application, such as geo-fencing and unauthorised vehicle movements.

Here I’ll briefly touch of four of the companies with this kind of offering; Zubie, Automile, Geotab, and Mojio. Zubie has been in commercial operation in the US since September 2013, where it provides service to both individual consumers and to small businesses. Zubie sells a bundle consisting of a device, US cellular connectivity, iOS and Android smartphone apps, webview apps, customized reports, and access to a cloudbased service. The price for the consumer-oriented service is US$99.95 per year, with the device provided at no extra charge. Unlike some other OBD2 app providers the device provides its own connectivity (via GPRS) and is always-on when powered, even when the car is parked.

There is also a business version of Zubie aimed at small fleets of hundreds of vehicles, which includes basic vehicle and driver analysis and comparisons. The primary difference is a customized web interface and the ability to see and compare multiple vehicles and drivers with customized reports for the business owner. Applications include trip analysis, for which the route can be shown on a map, and driving behaviour analysis – hard braking, idling time, acceleration, speeding, etc. Vehicle owners can also see the performance of others who drive their car, a feature aimed at the parents of teenage drivers, and receive notifications when the car arrives at or departs from defined locations. The driving style analytics have facilitated a partnership with a usage-based insurance provider.

Zubie has recently added “Perks,” a program of targeted context-based offers and discounts based on data gathered from the application. For example, users whose battery would soon need replacing can receive a local, relevant notification as to an offer on a new battery. Sweden-based Automile is primarily oriented towards business applications. Its cloud-based platform is much more like a fleet management system than a consumer-oriented service. It offers a dashboard with trip reports, driver analyses, tax reporting, and so on. However, a consumer application is in beta now, and is said to include ride-sharing capabilities and promotional offers as well as the more usual predictive maintenance notifications, and trip and fuel consumption analysis.

Geotab, based in Canada, is also aimed at fleets, with an emphasis on the lower, smaller-fleet, end of the market. Capabilities include productivity tracking and fleet optimization. It makes much of its safety and compliance solutions, which support the US government’s mandated hours of service tracking requirements (FMCSA 395.15, since you ask). There are also risk management and driver coaching solutions.

Mojio, also from Canada, is primarily consumer-oriented. Superficially it looks rather like Zubie, and its basic proposition includes many of the same features, including trip reporting, fuel consumption analysis, and unauthorised movement notification. Mojio’s principal differentiation is that it seeks to position itself as an application hub – in its own words, as an “app store for cars”. It aims to build an ecosystem of apps and an open platform that allows developers to create new apps based on the information held in its cloud, and then to sell them to its customer base through an app-store model. It has already announced a number of partnerships, including Good Coins, Cary, Carma and Glympse. To be fair, Zubie has a similar API-based initiative in the offing, though it is yet to be formally announced.

The future of OBD2 services

So far most of the running has been made by innovative North American start-ups, and then by North American network operators – several of whom have either re-sold the start-ups’ services or created their own telematics services based on OBD2 devices. AT&T offers fleet management products based on OBD2 devices aimed at smaller fleets, though it is careful to point out that not all services – and particularly not those aimed at regulatory compliance and driver safety – can be delivered via the information carried over the port.

With the notable exception of Automile, European automotive electronics have been somewhat slower to move, though Bosch now offers the fun2drive Android app as well as manufacturing and selling self-install devices. Other European telematics manufacturers are known to have devices and associated services ready to release soon.

On the services side, most of the running has been made by Spain’s Telefonica, which is already reselling the Zubie service under its own O2 brand in Germany, and also via its Vivo subsidiary in Brazil. Telefonica also resells Geotab’s OBD2-based fleet management service in Europe. Again, at least one other European operator is poised to offer a usage-based insurance service based on an OBD2 device.

What is missing from the OBD2 landscape is the presence of a major brand – a big consumer electronics or service player. It is notable that the major smartphone OS players (essentially Google and Apple, with Microsoft bringing up the rear) have certainly shown that they are interested in connected cars, and have also shown their willingness to offer consumer electronics sensor accessories such as fitness bands and smart watches. An entry by one of these into the OBD2 marketplace would completely transform it, as has already happened with the smart TV market. Google ChromeCar, anyone?

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Wed. July 17th, 2024

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