CES 2013: Delphi Brings Smartphone Control, Tracking, Unlocking To Older Cars

Several automakers now provide smartphone apps that allow owners to monitor, unlock, or start their car remotely via the Internet. Automotive supplier Delphi has a new device that can add the same features to almost any car built since 1996. The company's Vehicle Diagnostics device, developed in partnership with Verizon Wireless, debuted this week at the Consumer Electronics Show and goes on sale next month.

The Vehicle Diagnostics device itself is a small plastic box that attaches to a car's OBD-II port. Owners interact with the device wirelessly using an iOS or Android smartphone app, or over the internet. The devices will be sold through Verizon and require a small data plan on the owner's existing phone account. Also on board the box are a GPS chip, Bluetooth, as well as a small radio transmitter for transmitting remote codes (more on that later).

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At its simplest, Delphi's system lets owners check things like battery charge, check-engine light error codes, and more from the smartphone apps. Including GPS means the device can also track the vehicle's whereabouts -- a live tracking screen even has a "Call 911" shortcut in case the owner realizes his or her car has been stolen. And a "geofences" feature provides alerts on the phone each time the device enters or leaves a certain area. Nosy parents could be prompted each time a teen's car arrives at school or departs home. The GPS feature also tracks every single trip the car makes; a screen in the app shows the start and end times and locations for each trip, as well as metrics like driving distance and time spent idling.

Perhaps the most ingenious feature is a function that "clones" the remote to any modern car. The Delphi box can listen for and emulate all the radio functions on a car remote, meaning the user can lock, unlock, or even remote-start their car by way of the smartphone app. That's a feature that usually must be baked in to a car from the factory.

Despite all of these functions, a Delphi representative maintains that most people could setup the system in about ten minutes. The device is literally a "plug and play" affair, with the majority of options configured on the smartphone app. As a testament to the ease of installation, Delphi representatives hinted that they have occasionally tested the devices on rental cars.

Vehicle Diagnostics by Delphi goes on sale next month through Verizon Wireless. The price, which has yet to be announced, includes a two-year service contract with Delphi.

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