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New apps aim to diagnose car troubles before your mechanic does

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With a smartphone and some wearable sensors connected to it, the average person can now easily monitor their key vital signs and potentially manage or avoid future health problems.

Increasingly, that's going to be the case with cars, too.

Preventive maintenance is becoming a buzz phrase in the auto industry as a host of startup companies work on developing easy-to-use, inexpensive technologies that keep tabs on vehicle health and predict problems before they happen.

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The Kē (pronounced "key"), for example, is a fob that plugs into a vehicle's on-board diagnostics port and connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth. Developed by Toronto-based Drven, it effectively attaches a car to the Internet, where artificial-intelligence software monitors parts and functions. The system can compare wear and tear against a database and make predictions and suggestions if necessary.

The app can tell you that your particular car model is prone to transmission problems when it hits 100,000 kilometres, for example, and advise you to get preventive service.

It's basically a Fitbit for your car.

"We can let you know ahead of time and also give you a cost on how much that expense is going to be," says David Alleyne-Martin, co-founder and chief executive of Drven. "It helps people make smarter decisions."

Drven is partnering with a large auto-maintenance chain to roll out Kē in Canada this fall. The device costs about $30 and will eventually become available directly to consumers as well. The startup's near-term plan, however, is to have mechanic garages swallow the cost as part of their marketing efforts.

"We're trying to get rid of that speed bump. We want it in as many cars as possible," Mr. Alleyne-Martin says.

Pitstop, another Toronto-based startup, has a similar product and plan. The company makes two versions of its diagnostic fob – one that connects to a driver's smartphone via Bluetooth and another that relays information directly back to dealerships via a cellular connection.

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As with Drven, Pitstop is having dealers – not the end consumer – pay for the devices, which cost around $50. The end result is also similar: The company can monitor, assess and predict problems.

Shiva Bhardwaj, chief executive and founder, says predictive maintenance won't just save drivers money, it'll also give them more independence because AI software can produce a more neutral and honest assessment of a car. "It's very objective."

Pitstop is available through 15 dealerships so far, mainly in Ontario, with about 2,000 cars on its system, Mr. Bhardwaj says. The company is also looking to make its devices available directly to consumers this summer.

The preventive-maintenance field is starting to attract interest from big players. In April, SiriusXM spent $100-million (U.S.) to acquire San Francisco-based Automatic Labs, another startup that makes similar plug-in diagnostic tools, in an effort to expand its business beyond satellite radio.

Drven and Pitstop also both became part of the recently launched Canadian chapter of Infiniti Lab, a technology accelerator and competition program run by Nissan's luxury-car division.

Along with seven other Canadian transportation-oriented startups, the two companies are receiving mentorship and introductions to key industry contacts via the program. Each participant will deliver a Dragons' Den-like pitch at the end of June, with one winner chosen to go on to a similar accelerator in Hong Kong in August.

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"This isn't a weekend startup program, it's for advanced businesses," says Stephen Lester, managing director of Infiniti Canada.

Some car makers are further ahead than others in realizing the value of giving customers diagnostics information. General Motors' OnStar feature, for example, has been providing drivers with much of this sort of data for some time now.

The downside of such manufacturer built-in features, according to the startups, is that they try to lock users into their respective systems.

"The act of investing in software and engineers to build technology that helps with maintenance does fit well within their bottom lines," Mr. Bhardwaj says. "Their bottom line is about selling vehicles."

The third-party companies, on the other hand, are geared more toward maintenance than sales.

"We're more focused on helping you preserve the value of your investment," Mr. Alleyne-Martin says. "We don't have a stake in the game in selling you a vehicle."

Peter Nowak writes regularly about automotive technology for Globe Drive.

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About the Author

Peter Nowak has been writing about technology for 20 years, with a focus on trends and how they affect the world. He worked at The Globe and Mail between 1997 and 2004 before moving to China and then New Zealand, where he won the award for best technology reporter at the New Zealand Herald. More

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