Mobile phones have transformed daily life. But there is one glaring downside: We can’t put them down, even when we’re driving.
Distracted driving—checking text messages, searching for Pokemon Go or playing songs on Spotify when we eyes should be on the road—is quickly becoming the number one cause of fatal car accidents.
In 2014, 3,179 people across the U.S. were killed, and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
What’s more, The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year and one out of every four car accidents nationwide is caused by texting and driving.
Self-driving cars are one solution, but they are probably at least a decade away from penetrating the mainstream. Thus, a number of VC-backed startups are hoping to save lives today by developing technologies that eliminate distracted driving once and for all.
- Zendrive just raised $13.5 million for its software that allows companies with large fleets of cars and trucks to better manage safety by automatically detecting whether the driver is distracted or using the phone.
- Driveway, an app that rates driver safety, landed $10 million.
- Peloton Technology, a developer of vehicle systems that deliver advanced safety and analytics to trucking fleets, last year raised $17 million.
- Navdy, which has collected nearly $27 million in venture funding, created a heads-up display (HUD) that projects information from smartphones onto car windshields.
The Navdy device brings notifications from the apps on a phone into the driver’s field of vision so eyes remain looking forward while driving. The device, which sells direct to consumers for $299, also includes natural gesturing, so users can swipe left in the air to accept a call or notification without having to look away.
“Phones are now a part of our lives and limbs, they are attached to us, so figuring out how to remove them when we are driving is paramount,” says Mike Collett, managing partner at Promus Ventures, which participated in Navdy’s seed and Series A rounds.
Collett said backing the company came down to a personal issue about safety.
“I’ve got four kids and the last thing I want to do is tool around trying to find a song or a text on my phone while I’m behind the wheel,” he said.
HUD technology was developed by the military for fighter pilots, who needed to keep their eyes on target data without glancing down. But Collett believes the technology now belongs in everyone’s automobile.
“It will take a while before HUD displays get into most vehicles, but it’s the future,” he says. “It’s changed the way I drive.”
The ability to look forward while answering calls and selecting songs without being distracted is a huge game-changer for drivers.
Collett is excited by the size of the opportunity. The HUD space is expected to reach $8.3 billion in five years, according to a research report published by MarketsandMarkets. But the opportunity could surpass that.
“There is so much optionality with a platform like Navdy that goes way beyond just getting the device into every car,” Collett says. “We see it as a new screen space for third-party apps. There are lots of different business models you could see just off the power of the data alone.”
Investors are also encouraged by the exit activity in the space. Lytx, a provider of dashboard video telematics and distracted driving services, was acquired earlier this year by the Chicago private equity firm GTCR for more than $500 million. San Diego-based Lytx raised about $69 million in venture from 2005 to 2009 from Menlo Ventures and Tech Coast Angels, among others.
And Cruise Automation, a developer of autonomous vehicle technology, was acquired earlier this year by GM for more than $1 billion. The San Francisco company had raised more than $18 million from Felicis Ventures, Homebrew and others, including multiple angel investors.
Of course, an investment like Navdy is not without its challenges. The company launched a pre-order campaign about two years ago in which it rang up about $7 million in sales. But the official product release has been delayed several times already, angering consumers.
Collett puts a positive spin on the missed milestones.
“Yes, they have missed deadlines,” he said. “But we are not seeing a whole lot of companies trying to do what Navdy is doing, and that is testament to how hard a problem this is.”
Another hard problem is selling directly to consumers. That’s why a startup like TrueMotion is tackling the distracted driving epidemic by going directly to the auto insurance companies, not the drivers.
Even though most people understand the dangers of distracted driving, they are unlikely to purchase an application or a device on their own to change their behavior, argues Mike Krupka, a managing director at Bain Capital Ventures, which participated in TrueMotion’s $10 million Series A round. Lakestar and General Catalyst are also backers.
Insurers, on the other hand, see the value in the technology.
TrueMotion has developed an app that leverages a smartphone’s accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS to track driving dynamics and judge how safely the user is driving. The app can determine if the person holding the phone is the passenger or the driver and what they are doing on the phone, such as texting or reading. It can even tell the difference between a phone held in a user’s hand, compared to resting in a cup holder or dashboard stand.
The app scores the driver from 1 to 100. The score is calculated by how often the driver uses the phone for calls or text messaging, among other metrics. An insurance provider can then use this score to help assess the risks associated with a particular driver and ultimately reward safe drivers through lower premiums.
“Insurance companies are starting to see increasing loss ratios because accident rates are going up, which they believe is due to distracted driving,” Krupka says.
The company’s first big customer is Progressive Insurance. Progressive already has its “Snapshot” sensor, which drivers plug into their cars. But Krupka says the TrueMotion app is easier to use because drivers can just download it to their phones, rather than waiting for Progressive to send them a separate piece of hardware.
To date, there are only about 3 million participants in the Snapshot program because of the friction involved. But by licensing the TrueMotion app, Progressive can potentially gather data on far more customers, Krupka says. In fact, more than 142 million customers will sign up globally for a usage-based insurance program, such as TrueMotion, by 2023, up from 12 million in 2015, predicts automotive research firm IHS Automotive.
One looming roadblock for every driver-safety startup, however, is the autonomous vehicle. After all, if cars drive themselves, people can use their smartphones as much as they want without any consequences.
“When every car on the road is completely autonomous and drivers don’t have to do anything, then this is probably not an important technology,” Krupka says of TrueMotion. “But that is a long way away.”
The recent crash involving a Tesla driver in autonomous mode proves this point. That particular Tesla was unable to discern that a large truck was turning right in front of the self-driving vehicle, and the driver died.
Krupka says the industry is still 20 to 30 years away from the point where autonomous vehicles are a relevant competitive issue.
“That means current technologies will continue to have value for a long, long time,” he says.
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Tom Stein is a Palo Alto, California-based contributor. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo of woman driving with a heads-up display on the windshield courtesy of Navdy.