Automatic Pro Review: An inexpensive tool for keeping tabs on a fleet of vehicles

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent
  • $129.95

Pros

  • Free cellular service for five years, inexpensive, and perfect for tracking fleet vehicles.

Cons

  • Lacks audible alerts for coaching, and insights are only updated once a month.

When Automatic announced its first product, a small On Board Diagnostic adapter that you plug in underneath the dash in your vehicle, it was marketed -- and viewed -- as an accessory that turned driving into a game.

Through beeps and driving scores, Automatic graded your driving based on acceleration, hard braking, and the amount of time driven over 70 miles per hour.

If you had a smartphone nearby, it would also create a map of your driving history. The only problem was the finicky connection between Automatic and an iPhone. Sometimes a trip was recorded, while other times you would receive a grade for your drive with a GPS map of your route nowhere to be found.

Automatic later introduced a unit with GPS built-in, eliminating some of the issues, but there was still one problem for someone managing a large fleet of vehicles: you couldn't track where your employees were in real time.

Enter the Automatic Pro. This $129 adapter looks nearly identical to its predecessors, but it has a new feature buried inside it: a 3G SIM card that enables real-time monitoring and tracking of the vehicle it's plugged into by connecting to a cellular network.

For the past two weeks I've had one installed in my car. I've grown to appreciate the push alerts it sends to my phone when my car is turned on and parked after giving my keys to a valet, but I've desperately missed the game-like scores and alerts from the previous Automatic devices.

Setup and installation

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Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

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Installation of an Automatic Pro takes just a few minutes, with the bulk of the time consumed by a firmware update.

Before purchasing any of the Automatic adapters, I suggest using the company's compatibility tool to confirm the adapter will indeed work with your vehicle(s). Automatic's official line is the adapter will work with most cars produced after 1996, but it's always a good idea to double-check.

Once you have the device, install the Android or iOS app and create an account. From that point, follow the onscreen instructions.

Take it for a spin

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Screenshot: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The first time I started my car after installing Automatic Pro, I was surprised to receive a push alert letting me know my car was moving. Then, when I parked and turned the car off, I received another notification saying as much.

In other words, every time an Automatic Pro-equipped car starts moving or parks, you will receive an alert on your phone.

I found it useful after calling the valet at a hotel and asking for my car to be brought up. I knew the moment it was started, and the moment it was parked in the entry way. I would have also known if the valet had decided to take it for a joy ride in the middle of the night, but thankfully, that didn't happen.

As you drive, your route is mapped out for later reference or viewable in real-time within the app.

Daily driving totals are kept within the app, including miles traveled, route taken, and the exact time the trip started and stopped.

Included in the $129 price tag is unlimited 3G service for five years. That service keeps tabs on a car, communicates it back to Automatic's servers, and makes it available within the mobile app.

Insights

Unlike previous Automatic adapters, the Pro does not offer real-time insights and scores for driving. According to the app, a driver must travel at least 100 miles every month, after which driving is analyzed and compared against fellow Automatic drivers.

In comparison, the standard Automatic adapters score your driving as you drive, displaying your results shortly after a trip has ended. If you hit the brakes too hard, a beep is emitted from the adapter letting you know to ease up next time. Same goes for acceleration.

The idea is, with Automatic's help, you learn to become a more efficient driver, saving on maintenance and gas mileage during the process.

Instant feedback is one of my favorite parts of the Automatic product, so I was a bit disappointed that after two weeks of driving with Automatic Pro in my car, I had no idea how efficient my driving had been.

I reached out to Automatic about the lack of Insights in my account, and the company pushed out my driving statistics early, giving me a glimpse at the monthly report Pro users will see.

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Screenshot: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Instead of an overall score, users are now presented with different categories of driving style, with a brief description of performance compared to fellow Automatic drivers.

For example, my "City driving style" is 21-percent smoother than the average Automatic driver. My "Braking style" is 22 percent less aggressive than average, and "Acceleration style" is 20 percent less aggressive than average.

I can see the value of the new scoring mechanism, however I would prefer to have real-time feedback. Doing so allows a driver a make changes and be aware of inefficient driving at all times, instead of guessing how he or she is doing throughout the month.

Crash alert

This feature alone nearly makes the Automatic Pro worth its $129 asking price. When you set up Crash Alert in the Automatic Pro app, the device will recognize if you're in an accident and alert an operator, who will in turn attempt to call your cell phone. If you do not answer, he or she will alert authorities of your exact location. Additionally, you can set contacts you would like for the service to contact in the event you're involved in an accident.

There's not a separate fee for this service. It's included and will surely save you money when compared to built-in options within vehicles (OnStar, for example).

Performance

To be honest, I forgot I had Automatic Pro installed in my car for a few days. That's not a bad thing; it just means it was working and tracking my trips as expected.

Viewing various trips I took over the past couple of weeks, only one returns an alert that GPS wasn't available to record the drive. That particular trip? Valet moving my car from the parking garage to the entry way, and I'm OK with that.

Conclusion

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Screenshot: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

For business owners who need an inexpensive tool to track drivers -- be it a delivery service or a team of electricians who are constantly in the field -- the Automatic Pro is the way to go.

Between the ability to view where each vehicle is currently at, tracking gas mileage, and the exact amount of time a vehicle was parked at a specific location for more accurate invoicing, the $129 price is easily justifiable.

On top of tracking, the adapter will also alert you if there's an issue with your car and inform you how to address it (RIP pesky check engine lights) to help ease the burden of excess maintenance fees.

If the idea of using an Automatic is appealing to you, but you're unsure if you want to spend $129 on one, Automatic is offering a scaled back version for $79 starting October 20. Automatic Lite uses your smartphone instead of the 3G connection to track your driving.

Update Oct. 21 3:11 pm EST: Automatic has asked me to clarify the Pro wasn't developed for use in a fleet management setting, with the company primarily focusing on consumer users right now. That said, Automatic Pro can be used to track and manage multiple vehicles, whether they are personal or company owned.

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