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The App Arms Race For The Smarter Car

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While the Ford Model T has been venerated over the years as the robust start to an American automotive tradition, the truth is that early cars provided just as much hassle as they did convenience. Not only did most models have to be hand cranked to start the engine, but weak gears on the front axle meant that any steep hill had to be driven up going backwards.

Fast forward more than a century and despite the addition of cupholders, automatic steering and heated seats, cars haven’t really evolved into something else as much as they’ve become faster, safer and more streamlined machines. However, a rash of startups are trying to leverage aftermarket dongles and drivers’ own smartphones to push the automobile into the Information Age.

Dash is one such startup that has been on the consumer retail market since 2014, TechCrunch explained, but only recently did it announce its decision to release an enterprise-facing on-board diagnostics dongle called Dash XL, as well as a paired smartphone app. While major carriers have the resources to place electronic logging devices that track drivers’ speeds, distances and other factors, Dash is hoping that this streamlined version of ELDs, coupled with Dash IQ – an analytics suite that leans on data gathered from Dash’s consumer products to predict driving conditions and optimize routes – can bring high-level logistical improvements to the smallest carriers on the market.

Regardless of whether drivers are aware that their cars aren’t quite living up to the big data promises being fulfilled by the smartphones in their pockets, Dash CEO Jamyn Edis told Founder’s Guide that both commercial and enterprise driving are primed for a serious software update.

“We knew people wanted their tech and cars to be smarter, and in doing so, adding convenience, cost savings, increased safety and greener driving,” Edis said. “Both utility and engagement functionality. So, we centered on safety, savings and social. So far, we seem to have made the right calls, given our leadership position, versus the other players in this new space.”

Edis is right to acknowledge that while Dash might be leading the arms race for a smarter car, it’s far from running away with the top spot. Vinli, an OBD dongle-only startup, retails for just $99 and works with a number of third-party apps – unlike Dash, which is a closed product, GPS Business News reported. In fact, New York City began a program in August called “Drive Smart” that taps platforms from Dash and two similar startups – Metropia and Commute Greener – to help Manhattan drivers prove their safe driving habits for discounts on insurance rates up to 30 percent.

“[These devices] can tell the G-force of hard stopping or hard acceleration and a hard turn,” Alex Keating, senior project manager at the NY Department of Transportation, told CBS New York. “So the driver, as well as the service provider, are able to look at speeds, hard-breaking events, time of day and basic GPS.”

While it’s unclear just which OBD startup will emerge as the top dog of this burgeoning battleground that’s already spilling over from consumers to businesses, data from ABI Research show that the victor could have an incredible store of spoils waiting for it. From 2015 onward, the research firm expects the OBD “infotainment aftermarket” to grow by a staggering compound annual growth rate of 29.5 percent. In 2020, 70 percent of all aftermarket automobile plugin devices will be OBD-based.

However, with so much at stake, James Hodgson, research analyst at ABI, explained that the divide between open platforms like Vinli and closed systems like Dash could setup a vicious fight for dollars down the road.

“This is what makes OBD-II platform aftermarket application frameworks like Mojio or Vinli so appealing,” Hodgson said in a statement. “A simple reality of the OBD port is that only one is to be found in every car – with no easy way of adapting it to support the various solutions which need its power and unique access to CAN-bus data. OBD dongles with support for multiple third-party applications enable the peaceful coexistence of would-be competitive services, as well as the promise of more to come.”

All signs point to tumultuous but potentially lucrative years ahead for companies like Dash, Vinli and others, and with shortage of shoppers on the road and retailers trying to break into the on-demand delivery market, these startups better bring their A games if they hope to come out on top of the Wild, Wild West of big data driving.

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