A lot has been said (or left unsaid) about Apple's continued eschewing of NFC in its smartphones. One possible explanation is that the company has a lot of faith in its own iBeacon technology, a Bluetooth Low Energy standard which alerts iPhone apps when you are near a transmitter (beacon), as a replacement. After establishing iBeacons in every one of its domestic US stores, Apple has turned to other applications and with the technology now enabled in the Automatic smart driving assistant, it might just be getting its show on the road.
Launched in early 2013, Automatic is a small device that plugs into a vehicle's diagnostics system through its OBD-II Data Link Connector. With Bluetooth 4.0 built-in, it then transmits data wirelessly to the companion smartphone app, identifying driving habits such as rough braking, speeding and excessive acceleration that can result in excessive fuel consumption and substandard maintenance of the car.
In addition, the device also helps you find your parked car when it seems to keep shifting spaces, alerts emergency services in case of an accident and can provide a diagnosis should any of those disconcerting dashboard lights come on.
So what is iBeacon?
iBeacon emerged in mid-2013 and is a feature of iOS 7. The system uses a small wireless sensor, or a specially-configured Bluetooth 4.0-enabled device, to send alerts to an iPhone app when the user is within range of a beacon.
Apps for iBeacon are designed by those wanting to send out the alerts, with retail stores being a prime candidate for its potential uses. By placing beacons around a supermarket for example, proprietors could send out coupons to a user when they enter the store (or try to entice them as they're walking by), guide them to where there are items on sale, or remind them of a special wine they bought on last year's birthday.
While this raises obvious privacy concerns, the fact that users will need to voluntarily download a retailer's app appears an effective safeguard against unwanted prying.
What does this mean for Automatic?
Automatic was able to implement Apple's iBeacon technology through a software update, which effectively turned the device into what the company says is the largest deployment of iBeacon transmitters in the world.
What this means for existing Automatic owners is not a great deal immediately, though the company says the update improves the connection between the iPhone and the device, making capturing the car's data more reliable.
What it hopes to achieve with the technology is a system whereby users can securely identify themselves and their vehicles to particular service providers. Filling up and leaving a gas station, for example, would automatically detect the amount on the pump and take the funds from your credit card. Parking meters could monitor how exactly long you've occupied a space for, and it could well make toll booths a thing of the past.
Automatic has made an effort to distance itself from the promotional uses of retailers, its website stating: "Our implementation is nothing like this since Automatic users own both the beacon (the Automatic Link) and the app."
Currently, Automatic's iBeacon is only iOS-compatible, but the company promises to provide similar services to those with Android phones using different technology.