How your car could get mechanics bidding to fix it before you know it's broken

Justin Hyde
Managing Editor
Motoramic
Openbay Connect

As smart as our phones have become, our cars remain dumb. Most older vehicles lack any kind of wireless connectivity, and outside of a few warning lights can't even communicate with their owners about the specifics of any problem. In most vehicles on the road, knowing what's causing a check engine light to switch on requires special scanners, sifting through trouble codes and usually a trip to the repair shop.

Now a Boston-based online auto repair marketplace wants to be the first to make that process more intelligent. By piggybacking on technology from insurance companies, its new service would have mechanics bidding to repair your car minutes after a check engine light comes on.

Openbay currently has some 20,000 auto repair shops bidding on jobs submitted by car owners, many of whom generally know what needs to be fixed. And it's not just tire changes; the average Openbay bid runs between $350 and $400. Rob Infantino, founder and CEO of Openbay, says the new service, called Openbay Connect, will be aimed at buyers who either don't know or don't pay attention to those warning lights.

"There's a group of people who are not that proficient with vehicles...they put gas in and that’s it," said Infantino. "So we figured, 'How about if we proactively manage their cars for them?'"

The target audience may be larger than it seems. To work, Openbay Connect requires an OBD-II port, the kind built into every vehicle since 1996. Newer vehicles have automaker systems like OnStar that can diagnose problems remotely, even though they typically aren't having such issues, but that still leaves tens of millions of older models that do suffer problems with increasing regularity.

To reach them, Openbay will piggyback on another technology: the driving minders of auto insurance companies. Many large insurers like Progressive and Allstate offer discounts for good drivers by plugging in montiors that keep track of speed, braking and other data. Those dongles gather data from the OBD-II port and send it wirelessly back to the insurer; with its tech, Openbay can use that same data for diagnostics.

"When a car throws a code, we can send that to the cloud, and we have all the environmental data about how it happened," Infantino said, including data about the car itself and mileage. While it's not fully automated yet, "you could get could get offers back (from mechanics) within a minute or two, or it could take an hour or two, but the data is traveling near real-time."

For now, the service will be offered for free through Openbay and certain partners, including insurance companies, as a test bed. If it proves successful, Openbay could offer the service as a kind of OnStar-lite, either on its own or as an add-on through other firms. And maybe even old cars could get a bit smarter, even if their owners don't pay attention.