It's happened to all of us: you're driving down the street on a beautiful spring day with the windows down, and something unusual catches your ear. A new squeal, a squeak, or maybe a clunk is coming from underneath the hood.
Perhaps it's something simple to repair, like an aging belt. Then again, it might be more complicated, like a crumbling control arm. You won't know for sure until you take a peek yourself (if you know what you're looking for) or drive it to your mechanic of choice.
In the future, though, you could have another option. A start-up called OtoSense is developing software to help automakers--and eventually, cars themselves--identify maintenance problems and nip them in the bud.
Among the company's most promising products is one called AudioHound, an app that can run on tablet computers. Though it's still in development, AudioHound has at least two potential applications:
1. If a problem is noticeable enough, AudioHound may be able to spot it right away. A particular engine noise or one coming from the air-conditioning might be so distinctive that the software recognizes it right off the bat.
2. AudioHound might also be able to hear problems develop over time. For example, if you were to use the app shortly after buying your car, AudioHound would have a baseline understanding of how your vehicle is supposed to sound. If you were to continue using the app, it could detect subtle changes in this noise or that--changes that you might not even notice, but which could save you a bundle down the road.
AudioHound has the potential to be a game-changer in the maintenance field--especially if OtoSense can find economical ways to install it on new vehicles. Luckily, microphones aren't terrifically expensive to deploy, and their cost is likely to go down even further as they're incorporated in self-driving systems, where they'll be used to identify emergency sirens, road surface conditions, and such. OtoSense says that more than one U.S. automaker is currently testing the software for future inclusion on new cars.
While AudioHound isn't likely to replace regular trips to the mechanic, it could dramatically improve the effectiveness of our vehicles' self-diagnostics tools--like today's "check engine" lights and other dashboard warnings, but much more accurate and detailed. If it saves us money and lets us sleep easier at night, count us in.