Want to save money on gas and car repairs? An app may help

Allie Johnson

What if you could have a virtual driving instructor in your car to help you save on gas by alerting you every time you floor the gas pedal, slam on the brakes, or speed?

A new product called Automatic combines a cellphone app with a device that attaches to your car to do exactly that, giving you feedback to help you track and change your driving patterns.

By adjusting your driving to use less fuel - for example, accelerating and braking smoothly and not speeding - you could save a third of what you pay at the pump, says Ljuba Miljkovic, chief product officer at Automatic. That can add up, he says, since the average household spends almost $3,000 a year on gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A consumer always can benefit from getting more information about their driving habits and how their car is performing, says Ron Montoya, consumer advice editor for the automotive site Edmunds.com. And, he says another new product, the Vehicle Diagnostics system offered by Verizon, has some similar features.

But, you have to actually pay attention to the feedback and actually change your driving behavior to get the most out of these products, Montoya says.

How Automatic can save you money

If you use it correctly, this type of device has the potential to do these four things:

1. Save money on gas. Driving better really can save you as much as 30 percent in fuel costs, Montoya says. To get drivers to pay more attention to how they behave behind the wheel, Automatic plays a chirping sound whenever the driver accelerates rapidly, brakes hard or goes faster than 70 mph. The app also tracks trips so you can later check to see how much the outing cost and how you drove. The app also spits out a weekly score between 0 and 100 so you can track your progress.

2. Help you fix your car. Both Automatic and the Vehicle Diagnostics system from Verizon include devices that plug into your car's data port - which is what mechanics tap into to diagnose a car problem. So, if your check engine light comes on, for example, Automatic can tell you if it's something as simple as a loose gas cap or something more serious, Miljkovic says. That feature could make you a savvier consumer if you do have to go to a repair shop, Montoya says: "You can say, ‘Hey, don't try to sell me stuff I don't need.'"

Or if you do need a repair, he says, you can do research ahead of time so you're not caught off guard when you get a price quote.

3. Improve driving safety. The behaviors that increase fuel efficiency, such as not speeding, not tailgating and not peeling out after a stop, also happen to be associated with safer driving. That's why some insurance companies, such as Progressive and Allstate offer programs where policyholders can install a similar device in their cars and get discounts for safe driving and driving less. Unlike those insurance company programs, the information generated by Automatic is strictly for the consumer, Miljkovic says.

4. Make your life easier. Do you ever forget where you parked? If so, Automatic can use your car's GPS to guide you to your spot. And Vehicle Diagnostics does the same and also allows you to track the location of your car and its driving history. So parents of teens, for example, can make sure their kid stays in a certain area and doesn't speed. "If you're concerned about your kids, this gives you a way to check up on them," Montoya says.

Insurance money-saving alternatives

Consumers who are interested in using a product like Automatic or Vehicle Diagnostics might want to instead consider signing up for a usage-based insurance program like Progressive's Snapshot or Allstate's Drivewise, says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

Going with an insurance company program would encourage safe driving and fuel efficiency with the added savings of an insurance discount, she says. For example, Progressive and Allstate both offer discounts up to 30 percent, based on how well and how much you drive.

"This technology is one of the biggest new things," Walker says, noting that more insurance companies will likely offer usage-based insurance in the future. It works well for policyholders who drive well, but not a lot, she says: "It's not for everyone - especially if you have a lead foot or a long commute."