Zubie Key review: Car-data collector spells the end of freewheeling road trips

At a Glance
  • Zubie Key

The Zubie Key has a lot to say about your car—and your driving. It’s not the first device to plug into your car’s OBD (on-board diagnostics) port and pull out selected data for use with an app. Rather than the deeply technical performance data sought by racing enthusiasts or mechanics, however, the Zubie Key gathers data for everyday drivers—fuel economy and average driving speed,for instance—and packages it into reports that show in a free iOS app (Android is coming).

Zubie lets you create groups, such as a family, that can be tracked via Zubie Key. The car itself can also be tracked, of course. (click to enlarge)

What you'll be able to do with that data is the most interesting part of the product. Zubie's app can gather driving data on an entire group, and you can belong to (or manage) multiple groups of drivers through the app. It's a very easy way to keep tabs on a hard-driving family or workforce, and use the data to make informed decisions about how people could or should use their cars. And Zubie is just the beginning: With several competitors following close behind, many more such apps are coming.

The Zubie Key works only with OBD-II-equipped cars, a mandatory feature in U.S.-sold cars since 1996. Once plugged in, the Key quietly collects data from your car's computer and beams it to the cloud, using a cellular connection (T-Mobile) that's included in the product’s $99.95 yearly subscription fee. If no connection is available, the Key caches the data until it can send it.

My driving habits, revealed

The Zubie Key analyzes your driving using a handful of safety factors. (click to enlarge)

Guess what: I tend to accelerate quickly. My husband could have told you that, but now the Zubie Key lays it all out for me: It counts where and how often I gun it, and how I compare to an average driver.

"So you're not allowed to have any fun?" asked a freewheeling friend of mine. Ah, but the Zubie Key does not judge, it just reports on five different factors that most affect driving safety: acceleration, braking, average speed, idling time, and nighttime driving. For example, while I'm obviously quick off the mark, I also observe the local highway speed limit of 70 mph. Zubie's database doesn't actually know what the local speed limit is, though, so if I were on an interstate with a higher limit, I'd show as speeding even if I weren't.

But enough about my driving. Put a Zubie Key in your teenager’s car, and the app can tell you whether Muffy exceeds the speed limit frequently—or took an hourlong detour to the mall on her way to study at the library. It can track not just the car, but also the individual, by cell-phone signal. You can take a break from Zubie by choosing the "incognito" feature in the app, meaning the Key stops sharing your location until you choose to make yourself trackable again.

The vehicle-status part of the app intrigued me most. It analyzes your car's self-check routines for real or imminent failures. In the case of my late-model car, a 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander that's been unfailingly reliable, there was nothing to say. In the near future, however, Zubie plans to dovetail that data with information on how much a repair should cost you—and which local mechanics might be available to do it. This tool could remove a huge amount of uncertainty and mistrust from the car-repair process.

So much for the freedom of the open road

The Zubie Key reports on your vehicle's functional status and can point to possible needs for repair—though none, luckily, in this case. (Click to enlarge.)

One of the few drawbacks of Zubie right now is that it requires a Facebook login to use the app. It doesn't dump the data into Facebook, but still, it's an odd operational detour. Zubie plans to switch to email addresses in a later iteration.

Zubie also stresses that users will have full consent rights over how their data is used. That's good to know, because it’s one thing for you to monitor your kid, but what if your insurance company could, in turn, monitor you?

We've all been easier to track ever since cell phones became standard-issue personal gear. All the Zubie Key does is make your car another database that can be mined for good—or ill.

What's getting lost along the way, unfortunately, is the car's place in American culture as a symbol of freedom. A car with a Zubie Key is not free. As someone who loves to get into my car and just drive, I'm a little sad about that.

This story, "Zubie Key review: Car-data collector spells the end of freewheeling road trips" was originally published by TechHive.

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At a Glance
  • Zubie Key

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