Are OBD Devices the magic pills your cars need

Since there have been several requests to write about the true value proposition of “smart-devices” that make your car smarter, connect your car to the internet and just that magic pill that your car needs, I decided to write about it.

While it is undeniable that they do provide quite a few convenience features, a lot of its benefits are overstated. Read further to understand the subtle details being lost and overshadowed in marketing pitches and the media’s ever increasing appetite for technology gossip.

A few details about the solution

The solution usually contains the following components

  • The Device
  • The App/Dashboard
  • The Cloud/The Database & Middleware

The Device

  • ELM 327/ STN111x — These chips can pull out some data from your car’s in-vehicle network ( Data such as Key On , Air Flow , Engine Speed, Engine Coolant temperature, Vehicle Speed etc.)
  • Accelerometer/ Gyro / Magnetometer or all of the three depending on the sophistication and pricing of the device. Used to understand acceleration , orientation and roll of the vehicle for different applications.
  • GPRS/UMTS/LTE ( 2G/3G/4G) modems or BLE ( Bluetooth Low Efficiency) or WiFi adapters to connect to the network or devices that act as gateways to the network / internet
  • Storage from a few Kbs to a few GBs, depending on the cost of the product and unpredictability/ technology in connectivity and data transmission.

The App/ The Dashboard

  • To either be the source of intelligence, by making calculations on data obtained from the vehicle or could just be a native mobile web page that is dependent on the network in.
  • The only difference between a standalone app and the one that can be connected to the internet in terms of value proposition to the end user is the ability to access the data from his car on one device or over a series of devices.

The Cloud/The Storage & Middleware

  • What you store and allow to be retrieved is far more important than how you store it , in the cloud or a virtual private server or some standalone PC connected to the internet if all three of them can meet the acceptable performance requirement for the end user.
  • Cloud infrastructure is just an instrument of convenience the provider would use to scale and manage his costs for providing the service to the user and does not really mean there is going to be additional data just because cloud infra is being used.
  • As I stated before,the app itself can perform the function of a middle ware or the middle ware can reside in the server reducing the complexity of the app and reducing it to a mere native web page for a mobile phone.

What can these devices really do and what is it that they can’t

  • The device can check for fault codes mapped to the functioning of emission specific components that comply to a given emission regulation norm.
  • The device can poll about 15–20 engine-related parameters of which there are 5 or 6 of them that are of interest to the everyday user and these are the ones that actually give him insights into his vehicle performance.
  • The device can indirectly derive fuel consumption but not directly measure it.
  • When combined with the GPS and Accelerometer, the device can give you insights into what was the speed, acceleration and braking pattern with the position , traffic and map context.
  • Quite a few convenience features can be built based on this data such as geo-fencing your vehicle, mapping mileage to trips , historical tracking of mileage over a period of time , driving behavior vs fuel consumption etc.

Now for the part that is overstated

  • While they say that you can connect your car, what they don’t say is that the connection is more of a one way street. While you can pull out some data from the vehicle, there is no way you can push data from the network to the car to make it do smarter than it already is manually.
While they say that you can connect your car, what they don’t say is that the connection is more of a one way street.
  • The device has no means of diagnosing or prognosing issues that are not relevant to emissions which is more than half of the issues that we encounter in the vehicle everyday. The reason being these technology providers have only managed to piggyback on OBD Data made available for service centers to diagnose issues in emission components that undergo compliance tests to certain emission norms.
The device does not tell you if the wheel bearings have been worn out or if the lights have been left on during the last exit or if the steering column has issues.
  • The devices may claim that they can help you save fuel. The devices save fuel the same way price tags save costs . Although it might help you understand how much fuel is consumed on a per trip basis it is just as accurate as your DTE ( Distance To Empty) available on your instrument cluster.
  • Last but not the least, the in vehicle CAN networks are not secured by a gateway exposes and the messages exchanged between ECUs ( Engine Management to Transmission Control Unit for example ) are unencrypted. Exposing this to the internet is just an invitation for DoS attacks if the device security is not bank grade.
  • I don’t think I would need to stress the amount of security that needs to be implemented on the server side provided the kind of sensitive data you’d be sharing if GPS data from the device is involved

My Verdict

Some devices do a great job of aggregating data from multiple sources and provide convenience through connectivity, well designed apps and easy to handle devices. End users in markets such as India where the concept of car-ownership is still viewed as a privilege if not a luxury unlike a fleet manager who views the vehicle fleet as an investment where this device makes sense given the scale of operation, these devices still remain in the area of novelty.