Car Advice

Apps allow DIY vehicle diagnostic testing

With smartphones getting smarter and app makers tapping into ever more exclusive areas, performing DIY vehicle diagnostic tests just got a whole lot easier, writes Oliver Berger.

PRACTICAL MOTORING has written on the importance of performing regular basic maintenance before; this is stuff you can do with your own two hands.

Well, now, app makers have got in on the act to help drivers perform basic health checks on their car with nothing more sophisticated than their smartphone.

True. Thanks to a little input slot in your car known as an on board diagnostic (OBD) port, you can get a reasonably accurate idea of what might be causing your car to miss a beat. So what is an OBD port?

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The OBD port is a universal access point that was originally conceived to allow professional mechanics to plug a cable into your car and connect a computer. The computer software, which was mostly tailored to the car make and model, would then tell the mechanic how the car was running and what might need fixing.

In the last year or so, this information has been democratised and made accessible to consumers by various Bluetooth plugins and matching smartphone apps. Essentially, you can now simply plug in a little dongle into the port and it will communicate to your phone; and there are any number of apps available to help process that information.

What’s more, you don’t even need to open the hood of your car and have a play around – the port is generally accessible from somewhere near the driver’s seat – a quick Google search will usually turn up its location on a model-by-model basis.

What you use it for is really up to you – the port spits out information, via the dongle, to your phone, including fault codes, sensor read-outs, top speeds, brake performance as well as a host of other information. Mostly however, you will be guided by the app that you use to read the information.

In America, the most popular and well distributed app is dash:

The reason for dash’s popularity is no doubt its day to day utility for those of us who are less car savvy and more concerned with improving the daily efficiency of our driving. It gives useful information like route history, what to expect from a mechanic and where you parked your car. It also includes a “gamification” type module that scores your driving performance and matches it against friends – this is perhaps a fanciful feature that assumes a driver requirement that potentially doesn’t exist.

In the same space, you also have Automatic. Like dash, Automatic offers a boatload of utility, and purports to be a little less passive than dash – actively sending you notifications when your car has health issues or is low on fuel. It also offers driving history, parking location and seems to present a little more in the way of diagnostics. It takes more of a stance on offering efficiency tips relating to fuel consumption, braking distance and the likes, however its hard to imagine an app like this dramatically changing your driving habits.

In that vein, the best local app is probably gofar.co – built by a company based in Sydney. GoFar gets into the nitty gritty of drive economy based on petrol consumption, stored kinetic energy, stopping distances and other detailed data. GoFar then gives you feedback on the steps you need to take to improve that economy. Its an interesting proposition, but again, potentially a stretch for the casual driver. Like the other applications, GoFar also rates your driving performance and pits you against friends in a league table.

On balance, with apps such as these, the golden rule still stands – “less is more”. In a nascent market, the most successful of the apps will be the ones which provide real utility – breakdown assistance, fuel economy and enough diagnostic information to help you keep your mechanic honest in the case of bigger issues.

For the casual driver, one of these devices could represent a savvy investment when you weigh up the cost against the potential benefits … I mean, not to knock mechanics, but we’ve all had a stoush with one, right.

AUTHOR: Oliver Berger also writes for domobot -a blog about automation in and outside your home.


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Practical Motoring

Practical Motoring