Although nowadays everyone is talking about the imminent availability of self-driving cars, a number of tech startups are still working to improve car journeys for both drivers and passengers. Five of these companies were selected to pitch in the Transportation Technologies category at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival.
Some 87.5% of United States inhabitants aged 16 or over say they drive a car, at least occasionally, according to the American Driving Survey 2014-2015, sponsored by the not-for-profit Washington DC-based for AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which was published last year. Drivers spend an average of 47.1 minutes a day behind the wheel, i.e. five and a half hours a week. Americans who commute to work waste an average estimated 42 hours a year stuck in traffic jams, i.e. longer than one full legal working week in France. Given these statistics, it is becoming essential to do something to make road journeys faster, safer, more useful, more efficient and consequently more enjoyable. While we are waiting for the advent of the self-driving car, various startups are working to make the trip from A to B easier and more satisfactory for both driver and passengers. Five of these tech companies were chosen to take part in the finals of the Accelerator Pitch Event in the Transportation Technologies category at the South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival held from 10 to 19 March in Austin, Texas.
A safer journey: tech solutions designed to improve road safety
The United States has the highest vehicle accident death rate of all developed countries. Source: US Centers for Disease Control and prevention
Buffalo, New York-based Driver Watchdog is one of the startups which has set itself the goal of reducing the number of fatalities. Distracted driving is one of the main causes of accidents, and this is where the company comes in. “Some years ago, my mother had a stroke while driving; this is what led me to create Driver Watchdog”, revealed company founder Christian Johnson during her pitch. Her product is a ‘smart’ assistant that detects fatigue, health problems or driver distraction. Two cameras record what is happening both inside and outside the vehicle and transmit the data to the manager of the employee at the wheel or to a family member or friend of the driver. If a problem appears, the designated contact person will be immediately alerted. The information gathered can also serve for insurance purposes, for example if the vehicle in front brakes too abruptly.
Driver Watchdog is primarily targeting firms with fleets of vehicles and numbers of employees sitting regularly behind the steering wheel, but the company is also on the lookout for opportunities to do business with people who are concerned about their loved ones when they are driving and is currently talking to insurance companies and on-demand drivers. Johnson’s startup highlights the fact that the device is ‘plug and play’, which means that “it can be switched from one vehicle to another, whether the vehicle is used for professional or private purposes,” Johnson told the audience.
The Driver Watchdog device comprises a number of sensors and has a range of functions Source: Driver Watchdog
One of the most common sources of driver distraction in recent years has been none other than the smartphone. Some 70% of all US drivers use their mobile phones while driving, according to research from telecoms operator AT&T. “Over two billion smartphone users endanger their lives every day in the attempt to multitask while commuting,” warns PK Mishra, the co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Fingertips Lab. He has developed a product called O6, which enables drivers to use their smartphones without needing to either touch or look at the screen.
You install O6 on the steering wheel. This connected object then communicates with your smartphone via a dedicated app and is used like a button that you rotate in order to scroll down the options. And where did the name of this product come from? “The 6 refers to the sixth sense and the O to the round shape of the device,‟ explained PK Mishra.
This solution should appeal to Californian legislators, who several months ago passed a law prohibiting all cellphone use – other than via a hands-free kit or Bluetooth – while driving a vehicle.
In similar vein, Chicago-based startup HAAS Alert is looking to protect both drivers and passengers of connected vehicles, by warning them in real time of potential dangers. Co-founder and CEO Cory James Hohs came up with the idea when an ambulance crashed into his motorbike, almost killing him. The basic idea is to provide the driver with all necessary information so that s/he can make the right decisions. The HAAS solution enables municipal services to send out alerts to drivers in a given neighbourhood, informing them of accidents along their journey, a blocked lane, or if a fire engine or other priority rescue vehicle is coming through. The technology is also able to direct drivers to alternative routes if necessary. This service could also be useful for totally autonomous vehicles. Some automobile manufacturers such as Jaguar Land Rover are already showing interest in the data collected. HAAS Alert was one of three startups to join the Jaguar Land Rover Tech Incubator recently.
Two factors can greatly improve road safety: reducing the time during which a driver’s attention is distracted; and providing as much necessary information as possible. This latter point is what Washington-based company INRIX is proposing as regards weather information – informing drivers about such hazards as fog or bad weather.
A more efficient journey: apps optimising time spent in the car
Sometimes enjoying your journey more means spending less time in the car. Two of the SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event finalists have been working on this aspect in very different ways.
Austin-based SPLT is a carpooling startup with a difference. The firm works in B2B mode, offering a service to companies that enables staff to ride together. There is no longer any need to wait for the Uber or Lyft vehicle to arrive. Journeys and times are planned the day before but can also be changed at the last minute. SPLT’s transport platform is designed to link up people who live and work close to each other. “One of our partner companies in Mexico has 4,000 employees but none of them uses Uber, Lyft or an equivalent, mainly because they’re too expensive. But 50% of them use our app because it’s subsidised by their company,” which enables staff who would usually take the bus to share their journey with a colleague at an affordable price, SPLT co-founder and CEO Anya Babbitt told the SXSW audience. This ‘smart city’ solution convinced the SXSW jury and won SPLT first place in the Transportation Technologies category, based on five criteria: the uniqueness of the concept; long-term potential business; the benefits provided by the solution; product function; and staff quality.
And for those who believe in enjoying themselves after the working day is over, the fifth finalist in the Transportation Technologies category, Detroit-based Spatial.ia, might well revolutionise how we spend our free time, by providing a new way of using maps while at the wheel.
Where can I find a smoothie in San Francisco? Spatial’s AI system uses around thirty sources in order to reply efficiently to your question within a few seconds.
This location platform answers questions on places to go in the same way as a local resident would. Where can I best see the sunset? Which restaurants have jazz groups playing? Which is the street where most people are hanging out tonight? Answers can of course often be found on Google and the social networks and that is where the Spatial AI-based searcher goes to find real-time information, which it also stores in an indexed database.
A cute edited photo on Instagram showing a festive atmosphere, the Facebook status of a romantic young man, a tweet about a public concert: these are all examples of information gathered from thirty different sources by Spatial. The tool uses voice recognition technology so as not to distract the driver at the wheel. And for anyone who is short of ideas, the app is also able to suggest things to do or see.
These five startups that pitched at SXSW clearly are not short of ideas when it comes to helping users get around safely and enjoyably by car.