Software: Apps to use in – and on – your car
Image credit: Jonathan Wilson
Whether it’s diagnosing your car’s problems, tracking its running costs, or taking cost out by getting a lift with someone else, your mobile can help with your mobility.
Understanding your engine
Using a smartphone for navigation is routine now, whether you use its standard mapping tools, a separate satnav app, or a specialist app such as Waze – this is the Google-owned service for reporting accidents, roadworks and other driving hazards, and re-routing you accordingly. And of course many of us now stream audio from a phone to the car’s speakers.
But there is more you can do with cars and smartphones. The most interesting thing is to get an app that talks to an OBD2 adapter. The latter plugs into the diagnostics socket on pretty much any car built in the last 10 to 15 years and, depending on the type, connects over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi to a phone or tablet.
You do have to be careful when buying – there are cheap adapters around that don’t work well and may even throw up spurious errors. It is hardest for Apple users, because iDevices are more picky than Androids about which OBD2 adapters they will connect to. But assuming it all works properly, the app can read your car’s sensors and error flags. Those sensors include vehicle speed, engine RPM, coolant temperature, inlet pressure, fuel system status and so on.
One of the best apps we tried is Torque (OBD2 & Car), available for Android in Lite (free with ads) and Pro (£2.95) forms. Lite is an older version and is mainly useful to verify that your phone and adapter work together, while Torque Pro is considerably more capable.
The app gives you a very customisable ‘dashboard’ upon which you can place dials or graphs for any sensor data that the OBD2 adapter can pull from the engine control unit (ECU). Torque Pro can upload sensor plus GPS data to a webserver – for example to log your location, speed and engine performance – and export its log files in various formats, such as a map showing how your speed or fuel economy varied through your journey. There is also a head-up display option for night driving; this mirror-images the screen so you can stick the device to the car dashboard and view it reflected in the windscreen.
More importantly perhaps, Torque Pro can show and reset all the fault and trouble codes stored in your ECU. These are the things that result in that frighteningly uninformative warning light on the dash, and normally require a visit to a suitably-equipped garage where a mechanic plugs in a special handheld computer. Of course, simply being able to decode the fault flag doesn’t teach you how to fix it, but if you do want to do more of your own car maintenance, a tool like this is essential.
Extra tools in Torque Pro include accurately timing your car from 0 to 60, a CO2 emissions read-out, and optional alarms or spoken warnings, for example if the coolant overheats while you’re driving. There are also third-party plug-ins available, such as new dashboard widgets.
Free on iPhone & Android
The likes of Uber and Lyft may get the headlines, but there is a lot more to car-sharing than these services, as anyone who has ever hitchhiked will know. Hitching has its downsides; as a driver, you never know who you might be letting into your car, and as a hitcher you have no idea how long you’ll have to wait before someone takes pity.
The obvious answer is some sort of social network, where those seeking and offering city-to-city lifts could post that information, and this has indeed been tried many times. The key problems have been pretty much the same all along – you need a critical mass of users to make it worthwhile; users need to be able to rely on each other actually turning up; it needs to be worth the driver’s while, and so on.
There are caveats to Paris‑based BlaBlaCar – in particular, it is backed by venture capital, which means investors expect a profit from it, and riders must now pay to use it. However, the fact that it has maybe 25 million users in around 20 countries and a reputation-based registration scheme means it has solved many of the problems that blighted early attempts at online car-sharing.
As well as enabling you to offer spare seats and look up rides, then discuss the details via instant messaging, the BlaBlaCar app includes an online payments scheme that takes away all the hitcher’s embarrassment at wondering how much petrol money to offer the driver. Instead, when you use the app to offer a ride, you set a fuel-share fee as part of that – and because it’s merely a contribution towards costs, BlaBlaCar has been able to agree with the motor insurers that it doesn’t count as a hire fee, which means your normal car insurance is fine.
BlaBlaCar’s profit comes from a booking fee paid by each passenger – this is variable, but seems to average between 10 and 15 per cent. As well as funding the BlaBlaCar operation, this money pays for add-on breakdown and personal accident insurance.
Free on iPhone & Android
Hitchhiking is not the only reason to ride-share – another big one is commuting. There will usually be a lot of opportunities for car-pooling within any medium to large organisation, or on a campus or industrial park, but building and maintaining the necessary infrastructure to bring drivers and passengers together is a major task.
This is where Faxi (short for ‘Friends as a taxi’) comes in. It has already built that infrastructure and the mobile apps to use it, and it promotes them to organisations – although there’s nothing to stop an individual setting up a Faxi group too – as a way of solving their congestion and parking problems, while at the same time saving money for their employees. It already has quite a few corporate hosts who can provide incentives, such as dedicated or cheap parking spaces, and use the system to verify that car-pooling really did take place.
The app is also a journey planner, offering healthier alternatives such as cycling and walking routes, but its main role is to link you to the other members of your pool. Integrated messaging lets you arrange the car-share, and a built-in payment system handles cost-contributions should the driver request them. Perhaps more importantly, the app also alerts passengers that their driver is on the way, and then logs it when they climb aboard.
Free on Android
Tracking your motoring expenses with a smartphone app is a lot easier than trying to keep track and make sense of a bunch of paper receipts. Simply fill up your vehicle’s tank each time, then enter the amount of fuel you bought and the odometer reading. This tells Fuelio how much you have used (assuming every pump fills your tank to the same level), and enables it to calculate your fuel economy and mileage cost.
Of course, you could do this with a notepad and calculator, but having it built into an app not only makes the calculations automatic, it allows it to do more. For example, Fuelio can sync your data to cloud storage, and it hooks into Google Maps to show you your nearest petrol stations and their fuel prices (assuming another user has been there recently, that is).
It also offers both time and mileage-based reminders for the likes of servicing, and allows you to track costs such as parking, maintenance and insurance. These can be combined with mileage costs to get total monthly running costs.
Free on iPhone
If you drive a British-registered car, did you know that your MoT documents and vehicle tax status are a matter of public record? This is especially useful for car buyers, of course, because it means you can look up a prospective purchase’s history, but it has several other uses too.
Researching this data used to require a visit to the gov.uk website, but you can now do it on your phone, thanks to apps such as MOT Check for iPhone and MOT History Check for Android. Type in the vehicle’s manufacturer and registration number, and the app will give you a graph of the odometer readings for all its recent MoT tests. It will also give you details of when its MoT and tax run out, and of any MoT failures along with their reasons.
And because you can look up any vehicle, you can research other things too. That old jalopy that has been parked outside your house for months – is it taxed and MOT’d, or has it been dumped? Are your aged parents or feckless offspring driving illegally? Or maybe you simply want to know what your annual mileage really is, and how it has changed over time, so you can get a better insurance quote.