Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 1, 2013

From a car to the cloud

Delphi's plug-and-play diagnostics device does a ton.

By Scott Smith
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Delphi engineers think they’ve produced the perfect back-to-school item in Vehicle Diagnostics by Delphi, the first “car-to-cloud” device to arrive on the market.

Parents interested in making sure their kids are driving safely, and have a safe car to drive, might consider the little box, which plugs directly into the OBD-II port under the steering wheel.

It works in most cars made after 1996, and it acts, as Popular Mechanics put it, like “Lo Jack on steroids.”

Delphi’s box contains a modem capable of uploading real-time data from the car’s computer to Delphi’s servers from anywhere Verizon gets a signal.

Out since late March, the device is sold at Verizon stores around the country for $250. Right now, activation requires a Verizon data plan, so if your family already has a Verizon data plan, the service will cost you $5 a month additional.

It tracks miles traveled, will unlock your car doors if you have remote keyless entry, will check engine codes (and can even reset codes in some cases) and can send an alert if your car revs too hard, speeds too fast or is jostled in a parking lot.

Actually, there’s a whole list of things the diagnostics tool can accomplish, and new updates coming to make it even more powerful.

We sat down this week with Craig Tieman and Stefani Butler, an engineer and spokeswoman respectively at Delphi Electronics & Safety in Kokomo, to see all of the device’s capabilities.

“Basically what we’ve done is partner with Verizon to give your vehicle a voice,” Butler said.

Quite a fewer newer-model luxury cars already have these kinds of capabilities factory installed, through services such as GM’s OnStar.

But Delphi’s quick uplink speeds (six seconds tops between a smartphone touch and a door unlocking) and iOS and Android compatible interface are part of the reason the unit stands out.

Install Delphi’s diagnostics device, “and you’ve created a car with most of the features of a connected car,” Tieman said. “Nobody else can do the plug-and-play like us.”

One of the interesting little features which pops up when an owner of Vehicle Diagnostics by Delphi (Verizon picked the name) downloads the accompanying app is an item called “geofencing.”

You can put an imaginary circle around your car. Anytime the car leaves the imaginary circle, you get a text message and/or an email. Other alerts pop up when the vehicle exceeds a set speed limit for more than 5 seconds at a time, or revs over 4,000 rpm (this is a default setting, you can adjust it).

With the app, you can use the map function native to iPhone or Android to navigate, via GPS, or to see where you left the car in the huge parking lot at the airport.

Another function brings up a virtual key fob, which mirrors the functions on a regular, radio frequency-controlled key fob.

The big difference is the cloud. Anywhere a signal is available, no matter how far away, the signals on your key fob can be activated. It takes about six seconds for the signal to bounce from the device to Delphi’s servers to a smartphone.

That’s considerably better than the Onstar car unlock service, which can take a minute to work, Tieman said.

“The six seconds is really what sets us apart,” he said.

If your car doesn’t have remote start, the Delphi device won’t create it for you. But it will control any function the car already has.

Interestingly, Tieman said, next generation updates may be aimed at operators of commercial vehicle fleets, as the device serves as a relatively cheap way of collecting telematics data.

Delphi is already marketing the device for commercial uses and Tieman said updates are coming to make it even more effective for that use.

For anyone who’s ever had a “Check Engine” light come on, the diagnostics device does the same thing a mechanic would do at a shop. It can not only identify the code generated by the car’s computer, but it can translate what the code means into plain English.

Another alert comes on if the battery voltage gets low, which could save someone who’s left their lights on.

This is all from a black box the size of a cigarette package. Online reviews say the biggest knock on the device might be its reliance on Verizon’s signal, but even here, Delphi engineers have provided cover by making the device Bluetooth compatible. Even if a driver is out of signal range, he or she can still use the virtual key fob, Tieman explained.

Everything updates through a smartphone’s app store.

Conceptualized and specified by Delphi Kokomo engineers and product developers, the component was designed and manufactured by a selected supplier, Irvine, Calif.-based AnyDATA, and the software in the cloud server and downloadable apps were developed by Lixar IT of Ottawa, Canada, according to Delphi global communications manager Kristen Kinley.

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com.