Startups opening a port to timely car repairs

Parker Swift of the startup Mechanic Advisor installs the company’s diagnostic device in a car into the OBD -- “on-board diagnostics” --  port of a car.
Joanne Rathe -- Globe Staff
Parker Swift of the startup Mechanic Advisor installs the company’s diagnostic device in a car into the OBD -- “on-board diagnostics” -- port of a car.

You can probably find a USB port on your computer and the charging port on your mobile phone. But have you ever hunted for the OBD port in your car?

OBD stands for “on-board diagnostics,” and odds are good that the only person who has ever plugged into this particular jack has been a mechanic. But now an array of startups are designing and deploying small devices that will connect to it — and stay there as you drive — to report on problems as they happen, direct you to a repair shop, and even deliver price quotes on getting things fixed.

One of those companies, Cambridge-based Openbay, estimates that there are about 247 million vehicles driven in the United States, creating a $193 billion annual market for what chief executive Rob Infantino calls “do it for me” repair services.

The port spits out “a small amount of data,” says Roger Lanctot, an associate director at Strategy Analytics, a Newton-based research firm. “But it’s a really big opportunity.”

The OBD port on my Subaru Forester, it turns out, has been right between my shins for more than 100,000 miles. I’d never laid eyes on it until this week, when Parker Swift, founder of Mechanic Advisor in Boston, plugged in a white device about the size of a box of dental floss. The company will begin selling the device this month for $75; once plugged in, it talks via Bluetooth wireless to a smartphone app that keeps tabs on things like how many miles you’ve driven since your last oil change.

It can also decipher the trouble codes that the OBD port generates and categorize some issues as critical — meaning you shouldn’t just ignore them and keep driving — and others as less urgent. Since Mechanic Advisor was founded in 2006, it has assembled a database of several hundred thousand repair shops around the country. The app can direct you to someone nearby, or send the information to a shop you’re loyal to.

Mechanic Advisor also plans to work with repair shops to distribute its device to customers, as a way of generating more loyalty — and repeat business.

Mechanic Advisor was funded by its founders, with an initial $2,000 investment. Openbay, meanwhile, has raised several million dollars from well-known investors like Google Ventures, the investment arm of the search giant, and Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. The company is working with several partners, as yet unannounced, to distribute devices that connect to the OBD port.

Openbay’s vision is not just to report what’s going on to drivers, but also to send data to nearby repair shops and get them to quote a price for fixing it.

“You can see the offers in the app, via a text, or an e-mail,” Infantino, the chief executive says. “And if they can’t diagnose what’s going on based on the trouble code, they can say, ‘Here’s what we charge for an hour of labor to explore it.’” When consumers bring their cars in for repairs, they pay through Openbay, which takes 10 percent of the total transaction as a fee.

In October 2013, I paid $9.99 to be part of a beta-tester program launched by a Boston startup, Jaze. The company had recently taken part in the MassChallenge entrepreneurship program, and it was among the first to identify the opportunity to use technology to help consumers understand what was going on under the hood. But my device never showed up.

In January, I e-mailed co-founder Noah Gordon to ask what had happened. Gordon explained that he had run low on money, and the company had shifted its plan from selling devices directly to consumers to supplying them via repair shops.

This week, Gordon invited me to a loading dock behind his Fort Point Channel office for a demo. He used a $10 device made by another company to plug into the OBD port, and it communicated with a smartphone app to inform us what was going on. Gordon yanked an electrical plug from one cylinder of the engine to trigger an error code. The app sent an e-mail to me, as well as to a repair shop I selected.

Gordon said he was “in the midst” of an additional financing round and planned to deploy devices soon via a trade association that represents repair shops. He also hopes to eventually send devices to people like me, who have been waiting for more than a year.

I understand the appeal, for repair shops, of a device that reminds me to take better care of my ride and come in more often. But in the same way that consumers can compare price and quality ratings on everything from mortgages to dog-sitters, my hope is that we’ll soon be able to choose the best shop for replacing brake pads or installing a new alternator, whether based on location, price, or reputation.

And there’s another possibility: By collecting data on what you’ve been shelling out for car maintenance, these apps may be able to give you an intelligent recommendation about when it’s finally time to trade in the rolling wreck for something shiny and new.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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