Automatic-ally driving to the test is often a bad idea

iPhone UI for Automatic

Changing my driving habits using “Automatic” has me wondering about “testing to the test” again

I was very excited to back Automatic when it came out. It seems obvious that we should get more data from our cars, and that data should really empower us.

You start small. The current app lets me know where the car is, why the ‘check engine’ light turned on, shows me how much money I am spending on gas, makes calls if a crash occurs, and gives me info on my driving habits. Some good stuff.

Automatic is a harsh mentor. It started to beep at my in short order. I quickly got to work out that the LOW-HIGH-LOW beep was accelerating “too fast” and the HIGH-LOW-HIGH beep was a “hard brake”. The thing is, the image at the top of the post shows a couple of these alerts. I was driving on a side street very slowly indeed. It seemed like whenever I came to a stop sign unless I was incredibly anal, it was tempted to beep me. This kind of stopping on a freeway could make sense as an alert, but on this side street it really did seem way too strict.

Then, I realized I was being trained to the test. This type of feedback is fantastic if it is the correct feedback. If it isn’t though, you are training yourself for beeps rather than better driving habits.


We have seen this before in the area of traffic with speed cameras and how they cause more accidents.


When did I last see this? Health tracking applications. I mentioned this in my post on losing weight and changing habits. I remember deciding to go for a run versus lifting weights just because I wanted to get more Nike Fuel. That’s right, I wasn’t doing an action for my health, but for some system. I knew that I needed a break from that kind of tool (I am now using a FitBit but more as a data source than a driving force). Data is great, but being owned by the data rather than the true outcomes is not that great.

Of course one of the worst offenders is education and the teaching to the tests culture that we see in full force (especially in the mainstream US). As soon as you centralize a test you give it so much power. We should be aiming for michelin guide type views of education versus the test taking cookie cutter approaches that we have so much of today.

Michelin star restaurants are all very unique, but you know they are each high quality. Compare that to a chain restaurant where you kinda know what you will get, but often it won’t be quality (especially the vast majority of fast food).

This doesn’t mean that all standardized tests are bad. This is often thrown in your face if you mention these types of arguments. When I go to the doctor I am happy to get a standard test that can be compared to the population. What makes the biggest difference? I have a qualified doctor who is able to take the results of the tests as an input (not as the sole output!) and can use their knowledge of me, and their experience, to tailor their conclusions.

Back to Automatic. They have made a solid start, but they are still young and in first gear. What about when enough of the crowd are using this? That is when I get really excited. “Other folks with you car suffered X”. Giving me data as an input to my decisions will be useful indeed.

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