Magic bus: The fight for the OBD2 port

Magic bus: The fight for the OBD2 port

In September, Automatic Labs released Automatic Link, a $99.95 device that can help drivers make small changes in their driving behavior that lead to big savings on fuel over time.

Plugging into the car’s onboard diagnostics (OBD2) port and connecting with a driver's mobile phone via Bluetooth, Automatic Link provides instant audio cues for things like harsh acceleration and braking, both of which hurt fuel efficiency. The device also scores every trip, showing actual miles-per-gallon on each, and provides a severe crash alert function, which is still in beta.

Automatic Link is just one of many new products using the OBD2 port to provide connected-car services to otherwise unconnected cars. As such, these aftermarket products have been a great cheap way to retrofit aging vehicles.

Need real-time vehicle tracking on a map, which shows the car’s position, speed and direction via an app or browser? There is Delphi Connect, an OBD2 dongle announced in January 2013 and rolled out in Europe this fall. Signing up for usage-based insurance (UBI)? Chances are you will be mailed an OBD2 dongle for tracking purposes.

The problem is the space is starting to get crowded, and there is only one OBD2 port per car.

One port, too many dongles

As a result, consumers may soon be faced with the same kind of decision many must make when choosing a cell phone provider.

Just as they may need to switch carriers to get a certain type of phone or services, they may soon be having to change insurance companies to get more advanced infotainment services.Or they may decide to forego the discount that could come with a particular UBI policy – which would, more often than not, require a dongle – in order to enjoy Automatic Link.

One possibility is, of course, for the dongle makers to simply replicate the port. DriveProfiler, maker of hardware and software for a wide variety of telematics offerings, already provides an OBD2 cable with two connectors, so that two dongles can connect to the same port.

According to Ken Osler, director of DriveProfiler, it's possible that vehicle makers may end up providing a second port, allowing for more devices and more options.

The other option

But it’s also possible that car makers will go a different route altogether, according to Chris Peplin, research scientist, vehicle design and infotronics, Ford. 

(Peplin is technical lead for Ford's OpenXC project, an experimental initiative that invites hackers to create interesting new automotive services – often based on a device that plugs into the OBD port.)

"We'll have a new standard, data-focused API for cars that multiple applications can use simultaneously,” he says. “It may still connect through the OBD port, but it could also be something the automakers build into their vehicles in the factory."

Peplin's opinion is that, if Ford decides that making data available to customers is an important feature, the company will consider integrating APIs to access data.

"Ideally, by that point, an expanded data format like OpenXC's messages would be standard across the industry – or at least very common – and other automakers would be implementing similar APIs, as well,” he says. "We're seeing a spike in the number of consumer-focused vehicle applications that all depend on their own, proprietary hardware dongle. Eventually, I think these companies will have to come together around a single, standard interface so they can share data; consumers will demand it."

The unintended uses of OBD2

Interestingly enough, the OBD2 port was never designed for the current spate of aftermarket dongles. According to Bob Gruszczynski, OBD communication expert, Volkswagen Group of America, it was designed for only one thing: to control some engine functions and diagnose engine problems related to the United States' emission standards.

But telematics providers quickly found that there was plenty of valuable information in there – and some of them would love to pull even more data.

"We only sip information we are allowed to" in the various countries in which it sells products, DriveProfiler’s Osler says. "OEMs will decide what they are prepared to publish on their ports. They can choose not to publish information to their port or to publish it in a way it's not so easy to interpret."

While all OEMs publish at least some information that DriveProfiler can make use of, the kind of information and even its standardization vary widely around the globe, Osler has found. "We know there's a lot they could publish to their port that they don't,” he says. “So it's about getting OEMs to trust and believe in us.”

However, Peplin takes the position that the OBD port needs to continue focusing on federally mandated data. "The standard OBD information is still federally mandated, and there are no plans for that to change anytime soon,” he says. “However, there are also no plans for any new data to be added to the standard – it's frozen in time to respond to emissions concerns from 1996."

In the end, Mohamad Nasser, director of M2M product platforms and marketing for Sprint, thinks the answer lies in telematics providers expanding their range of offerings available via the dongles they provide.

This could mean expanding their own offerings or aggregating services from third parties.

"The OBD port issue is not who's going to own it, but who is able to use it to provide value-added services?" he says. "With that one connection, you can serve multiple applications. Ultimately you don't have to choose which hardware; you have to choose what applications do I want and who is able to give me the most through the OBD connection." 

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Consumer Telematics Show 2014 on Jan. 6 in Las Vegas, Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2014 on March 12-13 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Content and Apps for Automotive Europe 2014 on April 8-9 in Munich, Germany, Telematics Detroit 2014 on June 4-5 in Novi, Michigan, and V2X and Auto Safety USA 2014 on July 8-9 in Novi, Michigan.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.


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