When Thejo Kote came to the United States from India in 2009 to attend grad school at the University of California, Berkeley one of the first things that struck him were the cars that were seemingly everywhere.
In fact, the electrical engineer found himself working in Berkeley's civil systems engineering department and became intrigued with research his Berkeley peer Jerry Jariyasunant was conducting regarding the choices people make around transportation. Kote joined him at what he calls "the crossroads of transportation and computer science" and the duo came up with a brilliant idea: a little box you stick into the onboard diagnostics port in your car (usually under the steering wheel) that talks to your iPhone and pulls off cool tricks, such as telling you how to drive smarter and save fuel, finding your car if you misplace it, telling you why an engine light is on (and letting you turn it off in some cases), and even calling 911 if you crash.
I haven't tried it yet because the Automatic Link (the hardware) and the iPhone app don't come out until July, but when they do you can bet I'll be in line to test them. That's because there can't be anyone on the planet who loathes spending money on gas more than I do. Kote says Automatic can save you between 30-35 percent in fuel costs just by training you not to do things like accelerate too quickly, drive too fast, or brake abruptly.
If you own a new fuel efficient car--say a Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, or one of the many electric or hybrid vehicles coming off the line these days--you already have the ability to see how your driving affects fuel or energy consumption. Or maybe you've got a connected car that lets you access things like Pandora or Siri using the car's telematics, not to mention the ability to use your smartphone to check things such as the remaining life of your oil or the air pressure in each tire.
But for everybody else--people who own an older rig largely void of such contemporary features--this aftermarket gizmo is a way to catapult yourself into the realm of the technologically enlightened.
And, as Kote aptly points out, in this day and age you shouldn't have to buy a new car to get the functionality Automatic offers.
But what about the rise of the connected car? Won't all the intelligent and Internet-connected vehicles coming to market render Automatic obsolete? Well, the founders say they aren't worried.
Kote says there are about 250 million passenger cars on the road in the U.S. and about 15 million new cars are being added to that number every year.
"The number of cars that are not going to be connected or don't have a lot of these features which provide feedback, that's a large number. Actually 50 to 60 million new cars are going to be added to the road over the next five years that don't have any of those features," he says. "And if you also think of the fact that the average life of a car in the U.S. is 11 years as of last year, we're looking at a good 10 to 15 years before anything significant changes."
If Automatic can get even a fraction of those millions of car owners to buy its $70 box, the company stands to make a lot of money.
Investors certainly hope so. Automatic is a Y Combinator alumnus and is funded by Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, and "a number of fantastic angels," Kote says.
Two side notes:
Ljuba Miljkovic is a third co-founder and the company's Chief Product Officer. He also met Kote and Jariyasunant at Berkeley and was first person they brought in when officially starting the company in 2011.
And if you're an Android fan feeling rebuffed--don't. An app for you is coming in the fall, Kote says.