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Idle Chit-Chat

When Phones and Cars DO Mix

November 6th, 2013
Two apps that make driving better.

I’d heard whispers about it in the shadows, seen the knowing glances between those in the loop, and recently I’ve become one of them. I’m a Wazer.

I am required to be at an office during what we call ‘normal business hours’. That means I’m driving to my office in the morning and home from the office in the evening, along with all the other NBH drones. Some mornings, the 12-mile trip can take an hour. That’s not good.

Along my route are some key decision points. It’s shortest to turn left at Curtner, but that ramp onto the freeway can get massively backed up, to the tune of fifteen minutes. On those mornings it’s better to stay on the surface streets for an extra mile.

But which mornings? How can I tell in advance whether Curtner is a mess? Enter Waze, the social mapping service. Waze takes real-time data from drivers like me and finds the fastest route to work (and, perhaps more importantly, home again). Sometimes those routes use streets I never would have thought of, but I ignore the advice at my peril. (Monday, I thought I knew better than Waze. Boy was I wrong.)

Waze is a bit quirky; right now it tries to steer me around one intersection at all costs — including cutting through a cemetery as an alternative. I have no idea why it developed an allergy to that right turn, and I suppose a true Wazer would log in and fix the map. Even the maps themselves are crowdsourced. It’s pretty cool.

You should be aware, however, that Google just bought Waze for a cool 1.1 Billion, so as I drive I’m telling the Goog where I am. If you use Google maps you’re already doing that, however, and I think this is a case where a voluntary surrender of personal information (with a very short useful shelf-life) actually makes the world better. Perhaps I just think that way because I really hate traffic. I decline to advertise my location on Facebook, and I hope all you have more common sense than to do so.

Another very useful phone-related product I came across recently is actually a gadget/app combo. You may have read recently that I’ve been tinkering with my car so that it will pass the California emissions test. I made some repairs and pulled the fuse that powers the onboard computer and counted thirty seconds, which should reset it. Even if the Check Engine Light is off when I get to the smog place, if there are old error codes in the computer’s memory, I will fail. Again. I know this because that’s why I failed the first time. The Check Engine Light had been on, and that was enough.

So I cleared the computer. Probably. Maybe. After my first round of repairs the light came back on (I had broken a plastic bit during the first operation) so I made my second repair and pulled the fuse for 30 seconds. Once again, there was no way to tell if I had actually cleared the memory. Just in time, help arrived via the U.S. Mail.

You see, during this whole process I was frustrated that I couldn’t just check the damn computer myself. (Once you fail smog, all except a few specially-designated repair places aren’t even allowed to hook you up. Bah!) Then while reading a Miata forum I found a discussion of which OBD tools worked with 1999 Miatas. A light turned on over my head. I could buy my own damn code reader! That had quite truthfully never occurred to me. I went to Amazon and started looking around. There was one hitch that made me hesitate: Units were either a) really expensive; and/or b) not sure to work on my car. Although there is a standard connector, different cars communicate with different protocols. I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money for something that didn’t know my car’s dialect.

Then I came across one that was both cheaper than any of the others AND low-risk! BAM! For $21 bucks I bought the Elm327 WIFI OBD2 Car Scan Tool. There’s a cheaper BlueTooth version, but there was some indication that it might not work on all iOS devices. Why is this one more likely to work with my car? Here’s the thing: The gizmo doesn’t know diddle about protocols. That’s software. So if one phone or computer app can’t talk to my car, another will. And now the UI can be presented on a sophisticated touch-screen computing device, rather than a cryptic LCD readout with arrow buttons for controls.

When the ELM-327 arrived I splurged and got one of the most expensive apps available to talk to it, based on reviewers saying it worked no problem with their ELM-327’s. Ten bucks. For a total outlay of $31, I had a scan tool that not only worked far better than dedicated devices costing hundreds of dollars, it had a better UI, and could even display a host of real-time data as I drove around! Speed, rpm, air volume, battery voltage, and more. Some modern cars provide a ridiculous amount of information through the OBD port. The app I chose, OBD Fusion, can log data and even superimpose that info onto a map. Racers, apparently, love this stuff.

My smog guy was really impressed as well. He actually laughed when I revved my motor and the virtual tach needle swung upwards. He was excited that he could prescreen customers in the parking lot, quick and easy. I expect he owns one of these now.

And in fact I had not successfully cleared my computer by pulling the fuse, but with my gadget and my app I cleared the old codes and ran the car until all tests had come back green.

This tool is a game-changer for even an unsophisticated home mechanic like me. Knowing the code and being able to look up the repair on the Internet literally saved me hundreds of dollars. (I know because I once paid hundreds of dollars only to have the problem return a few months later.) It also confirmed that my speedometer is a wee bit off.

And next road trip I’m totally going to make a map of engine RPM along my route. Because the world needs to know stuff like that.

If you hated this episode, you surely won’t like:

  1. Really, Hollywood?
  2. Executive Severance
  3. Hedwig and the Angry Inch

One Response to “When Phones and Cars DO Mix”

  1. Vote -1 Vote +1
    Carol Anne
    says:

    And if you happen to work (or be a student) at a community college that has an automotive tech program, you have access to the MotorALLDATA database, so once you get the code, you can get detailed instructions how to fix whatever it is that the code indicates.

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