Automatic Smart Driving Assistant

The “quantified self” personal measurement tools all seem too constricting to me, at least at this point in my life. But, as one who cringed when I needed to buy my late-model Mazda3 for a commute, the concept of a “quantified car” makes a lot more sense. Buying a car means investing a decent sum of money in a depreciating collection of metal that requires sizable ongoing investments. Even when experiencing the joy of the open road, I’m still haunted by how much this contraption costs me.

So, to ease my heartburn over car ownership, I bought the Automatic “Smart Driving Assistant” just after the holidays. Intrigued by early reviews that I read on sites like TechCrunch and Engadget, I put it on my wish list and ended up buying it with some holiday cash. Spending $100 to get data on your car’s operation, your driving habits and your overall driving quality seems prudent. When that $100 also allows you to benefit from ever-improving software linked to your car’s data, it seems like a bargain. Of course, this assumes that Automatic delivers on its promise.

At present, Automatic is a simple dongle that attaches to your vehicle’s OBD-II port (every car since 1996 has one, apparently). The Automatic dongle samples your vehicle’s speed, fuel efficiency (MPG) and uses an accelerometer to measure your acceleration and braking. If your car has a mechanical problem known to the car’s computer, the Automatic dongle can read the OBD-II code, as well. The dongle then beams that data to your smartphone, using bluetooth, and an associated app then uses your smartphone to analyze and synthesize the dongle data; track your driving route and parking location; and guess at your overall fuel cost (based again on location).

The Automatic Smartphone app is simple but polished. The app presents the MPG, distance and driving habit data per trip; as well as total miles driven, hours spent, estimated fuel cost and average MPG for each week. Featured prominently is your score: a measure from 1-100, which penalizes hard brakes (measured by the accelerometer), hard “accels” (ditto) and minutes over 70 miles per hour. Your scores are calculated daily (Last day = 100!) and weekly (Last week = 98; four hard brakes in city driving screwed me!).

While it’s easy to pick at small flaws with Automatic – isn’t 70 mph arbitrary? why is the route imprecise? what if my hard brakes were the fault of other drivers? – my experience has been: it’s working. I’m now obsessed with avoiding hard brakes and hard accelerations. I scrutinize MPG numbers after each trip, wondering how I can improve it the next time. I brag about my high score to my wife. And, though I still cringe at the potential cost, I’m looking forward to reading the code on my first “check engine” light without taking my car into a mechanic.

I’m hoping that the app will continue to pay dividends. There is a “crash alert” feature, in beta, that duplicates some of the features on more expensive cars. Automatic has published an API, in alpha, which could lead to some awesome other applications. It just announced an integration with, which allows for user-friendly API access. And, as Horace Dedieu has discussed on his “Asymcar” podcast, a real promise of apps like Automatic is in reselling the car. If a used car seller can document their good driving habits, the car’s performance and their maintenance record (down to the trip) it could help the buyer and the seller.

I’ve got generalized privacy concerns, but they’d apply to most “quantified” gadgets and I view my car as the least personal item I own. Automatic could also, ultimately, let users down. But, for now, the promise of a car quantified through Automatic is soothing my concerns about automotive ownership.

-- Ben Bradley  

Automatic Smart Driving Assistant

Available from Amazon

Bluetooth Car Diagnostic Scanner

I have used this for several months to troubleshoot and diagnose various automotive problems on several vehicles ranging from a 1997 Saturn SL1 to a 2010 Infiinti G35 and a 2014 Jeep Compass.

Unlike the standalone handheld OBDII Can-bus diagnostic computers, which can cost upwards of $150, this device is only about $12. It uses your Android or iPhone smartphone as a wireless display and works both to tell you the diagnostic error codes that trigger your check engine light as well as a real-time diagnostics information display that can be used to troubleshoot performance problems while the engine is operating. The application you need to do this is free.

There are also paid apps that turn this unit and your smartphone into a tool for improving fuel efficiency through real-time monitoring and analysis of your car’s sensors.

One major advantage of this tool is that the Bluetooth connection has a 30′ range, which allows you to read the display without actually being in the vehicle. This means you can check under the engine hood or under the vehicle while still being able to read the diagnostics displays, which is really not possible with the older wired tools. This can make testing and troubleshooting much simpler.


-- Dan Kim  

[Readers say this Bluetooth device is not iPhone compatible. Here's a $15 OBDII scanner with WiFi that is advertised as being iPhone compatible, but we have not tried it. Also, reader Alan Burnstine says: "The thing you didn't mention is that you can also send codes to the car. Other than just turning off the check engine, you can also set some features, for instance on a Prius, you can turn off the annoying back-up beep. There is a procedure to do it without a scan tool, but one of these makes it simple as long as you know the codes to send (which are widely available on the internet)."]

Bluetooth Mini Small Interface OBD2 Scanner Adapter

Available from Amazon


A Stayhold is a right-angled plastic item that goes into a car’s trunk. It measures 9.7″ high, 5.9″ deep (forming the “base”), and 18.5″ wide. Two 1″ wide strips of Velcro run the length of the base, which keeps the upright leg of the right angle vertical, which prevents anything leaning against it from toppling over or sliding around.

To test it, I bought a pair of a smaller (less high and deep) model today at Home Depot, went grocery shopping, descended a steep hill on the way home — and found that they kept my grocery bags upright. (It should also keep open-top containers and potted plants secure.) All right!

It’s on sale at my local (Seattle) Home Depot for $8 each, but when I searched the company’s website it came up Not Found.

It’s $22 for a pair at Amazon, but the product isn’t yet in stock and hasn’t been reviewed. Amazon however will happily add you to its waiting list.

-- Roger Knights  

[Other sizes are available on Amazon. The 18.2 x 5.5 x 7.5 inches model is $13. — Mark Frauenfelder]

$8 – $11

Manufactured by Stayhold


Our small family has gotten by for years with only one car. We are fortunate that I enjoy bicycling, and that we live in a city with enough density, and with a good enough public transportation system, to make this possible. It’s been a challenge, but it got a whole lot easier this year when we joined car2go. This is a car-sharing service that rents Smart cars by the minute. You pick up a car where ever a previous user left it, drive it to your destination, park it on the street and you’re done. You use a smart phone app to find a car, and you can reserve one 30 minutes in advance. Reserving a car costs nothing, and there’s no penalty for canceling a reservation (or for just letting the time rut out on a reservation). Driving the car costs about 40 cents per minute, but you never have to pay for parking. This can often make it cheaper than driving your own car. It can also be more convenient; even in crowded downtown streets there are always little parking spaces that only a Smart car could fit into.

The service has some drawbacks. There are times when you want a car and none is available nearby. Smart cars’ limit of two people, and their limited cargo space, may make some trips impossible. While parking is usually easy, there are some restrictions. You have to park in a space that allows at least 2-hour parking, and it can’t be one that will become a no-parking zone within 24 hours. (Please note that these parking rules may vary by city.) Lastly, though you can drive the car anywhere, you can only leave it within the local car2go service area. If you run an errand in a neighborhood on the edge of city, you may have to continue to pay for the rental while the car is parked, until you can drive it back into the service area.

As I mentioned above, the per-minute cost is about 40 cents. They limit the per-hour cost to $15, and the per-day cost to $85. Drive it over 150 miles in one trip and they tack on 45 cents per additional mile.

The alternative car-sharing service, ZipCar, is cheaper and provides larger cars. However, it doesn’t have the flexibility of car2go. Each ZipCar has its own parking spot to which it must be returned, so you can’t make one-way trips. Also, you may have to reserve, and pay for, more time in a ZipCar than you really need, just to make sure you don’t return it late.

I’ve found that a small folding bike (with 20-inch wheels), car2go, and the local bus system are the perfect combination. I use the bike as my primary vehicle, extend its range with the bus, and combine both with car2go to make trips that require more flexibility. The bike also greatly increases the radius in which I can find an available car.

-- Tom Sackett  

Honda Fit

I’ve been driving 4×4 trucks for over 30 years. The trade-off for the weight and truckiness being that I could pick up firewood, haul lumber and sacks of concrete, and go anywhere, any time. I spent 12 years 4-wheeling in Baja. Many trips to the American Southwest (always in spring). Three long trips to British Columbia, shooting pics for Builders of the Pacific Coast. 4-wheeling it across the river to my friend Louie’s house in Mendocino county. I’ve been a truck guy forever. The latest, for my last 10 years: a 2003 Toyota 4-cylinder, 5-speed Tacoma 4 X 4 with metal camper shell, pull-out canopy, all-time classic tough, dependable vehicle. 140,000 miles, good for another 140. Desert Roamer. (I may sell it, and get a beater truck for local hauls.)

But there came the time, several months ago, when I realized I was through with the long truck hauls, the 3,000-mile trips, and hauling the truck over the windy roads homewards from my weekly trips into San Francisco was a chore.

I embarked on a study of cars, and ended up settling on a Honda Fit. Other contenders (in this field of scaled-down, aerodynamic SUVs) were the Toyota Yaris Liftback, Mazda 2, Scion XD, Prius C model, VW Golf diesel. The Cube too cartoony, the Scion xB too boxy. I didn’t do extensive reviews, but in the end settled on the Fit largely because of its ingenious cargo space in the rear: 4 x 5 feet with rear seats folded down. 20 cubic feet of space vs. 15 for the other cars. 4 doors and a hatchback so you can get into the rear from all sides. Like a small truck bed. (I could get into my truck bed camper shell on all 3 sides.)

I wanted to see how the Fit did on curves, since a winding mountain road is about half of my driving. I talked salesman Murray Cherkas of San Francisco Honda into letting me take a Fit across the city and then down the winding block of Lombard Street, “crookedest street in the world.” I took the 8 hairpin turns fast, and the car behaved beautifully. Sold.

I picked up a Honda Fit Base model yesterday. OMG!! It made me think of driving a Beemer 2002 in the ’70s. The 2002 was different! Like a rabbit. And I guess things have come a long way, because this very efficient little car reminds me of that. Going from a truck to this car is like going from logging boots to running shoes. Like a 250 pound guy losing 60 pounds.

360-degree visibility, automatic windows, a USB connector (country boy with vacuum cleaner here). There are a dozen things that delight me about this car. Biggie is it isn’t as tiring as truck driving. With the Beamer, I could drive all day and arrive rested — er, we–l — not wasted.

With taxes, fees, everything, it was just under $18K. 3 years, or 36,000 miles, they’ll fix anything that goes wrong. Five years, they’ll fix a lot of things.

I’m in auto heaven. Can’t help it. California kid. Driving since age 14. As evil as it is, I like rollin down the road. Good music. Thoughts rolling in. Cruising country roads looking for barns, indigenous, tuned-in buildings of all types to photograph. Arriving rested when I drive somewhere on assignment. Easy parking. Twice as good mileage as truck.

Poppa’s got a brand new rig

-- Lloyd Kahn  

Honda Fit
2013 Model

Manufactured by Honda

The Autoline

To find the best deal when buying a new car I use The Autoline. I can’t recommend them highly enough. For $200 they will find the car you want (or recommend the car you should buy based on your budget and requirements) and call you back with the best no-haggle price they can find. (They also do leases.) I’ve used them four times now and am very happy with the results. Each time they’ve arranged for dealer to deliver the car to my house, so I never have to set foot in the dealership or hassle with the guy who pressures you to buy useless “clear coat” and other pure profit add-ons.

UPDATE: I just remembered that I interviewed Patrick Schallert of The Autoline for a few years ago.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

The Autoline
$200 per vehicle purchased or leased

2-Gauge Jumper Cables

I’ve had these jumper cables for over a year. At least four times I can recall, (and probably more) when someone was already being jumped and all they could get was a click or it barely turned over but wouldn’t go far enough to start, I’ve just put these on instead of the wimpy cables they were using and the engine fired up instantly. Even from a smaller car to a larger one.

If you need to get hundreds of cold-cranking amps over several feet of cable, the voltage drops by the resistance times the current. So even a tiny fraction of an ohm matters when you need that many amps, since you can halve the voltage at the starter. You might barely get enough to the point of connection of the other car, then there are thinner wires to the alternator and a thirsty battery. Your battery and alternator probably provides more than enough but it doesn’t help if it doesn’t get there and instead just warms the jumper cables. Once when I didn’t have these I managed to get a car to barely start by putting a second pair of the thinner cables in parallel.

Forget anything under 6-gauge. 4-gauge can work most of the time. These 2-gauge cables work every time even though they are 20 feet long.

-- Thomas Z.  

2-Gauge Jumper Cables

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by FJC Inc

Sea Foam Motor Treatment

I’ve been having a “ghost in the machine” on and off with my motorcycle for a few years. It’ll start idling more roughly, run hotter than usual, give less power than usual, and have these significant non-linear jumps in engine noise / effort at around 7k RPM. While it was still under warranty, I brought it in to the shop where I bought it and they replaced some jet seals (or something like that), because it was a common issue with the model (2007 Yamaha YZF600R). It seemed to get better, and then came back. Brought it in again, and they cleaned the carbs, changed the fuel, and things got better. And then it came back. They started blaming old / crappy fuel, but I ride the bike at least a few times per week. I tried switching to fancy gas for a while (Shell / 76 instead of AM PM), and it still came back.

Anyways, after all this it came back again a few months ago, but the shop where I had originally bought the bike had closed. I was about to look into cleaning the carbs on my own, but I had heard that Sea Foam had a great reputation, so I thought I’d try that first.

I had about one gallon left in the tank, so I put an ounce or two in and flogged the bike on the back roads a few days ago. I noticed an immediate improvement after that ride. I finished that tank, put in another 4-ounces during a fill (it’s a 4-gallon tank), and it’s continuing to get better. I haven’t even needed to do the direct injection / smoke fest treatment – just a simple gas additive that has effectively cleaned up all the residue that had been causing problems. If you’re interested in learning how exactly it gets rid of gum and varnish residue, or you’d like more technical information head over to Sea Foams website where they’ve laid it all out. 

It’s nice to have a healthy bike again – and for only $10!


[Here is the MSDS for Sea Foam Motor Treatment. --OH]

Sea Foam Motor Treatment

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Sea Foam

HandStands Sticky Pad

sticky pad.jpeg

Several years ago, I bought one of these for its ostensible purpose: keeping my items from sliding around in my car. While it does that well, I’ve since found these stickypads to be incredibly useful for a number of household jobs.

Unlike some no-slip pads, these are extremely thin, allowing them to be unobtrusively placed under any object you don’t want sliding around. My keyboard no longer slides around my desk, my speakers are now much more securely perched atop their speaker stands, and various items on shelves are much less likely to be dislodged by clumsy humans or cats.

The pads are easily trimmed and are very sticky, so a single pad is enough for quite a few jobs. If a pad accumulates dust or dirt, it can be instantly restored to “full stickiness” with a squirt of window cleaner and a quick wipe.

A strength and weakness of these pads is that they don’t permanently attach to objects, like rubber “bumpons.” Unlike bumpons, these pads are re-usable and won’t leave a sticky residue, but they don’t semi-permanently attach to an object either.

-- John Booty  

Handstands Original Sticky Pad

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Handstands

Hella Car Reading Lamp

Car Reading Lamp.jpg

This is one of my all-time favorite and most-used vehicular tools: a hard-mounted interior reading light on a flexible stalk. This one is manufactured by Hella. I installed one in my first car, and used it for 12 incident-free years. The one in the Jeep is now 13 years old, and is still going strong. Both were/are mounted on the center of my dashboard, right above the radio.

Very handy in an infinite number of situations. Reading, obviously, but the directional nature of the light means a passenger can read in such that a drivers eyes are not blinded by glare. There’s even a version available with red and white lighting, for night-vision preservation. The new versions are LED. Havent used the new one, but Hella makes amazing stuff, so I’m very confident about a recommendation.

-- Todd Lappin  

Hella Car Reading Lamp

Available from Buy Auto Truck Accessories

Manufactured by Hella