Twenty minutes after Jamyn Edis picks me up in a Zipcar, he is slamming on the brakes to avoid running a red light on the West Side Highway in downtown Manhattan. I jolt forward, my seatbelt tightens across my torso, and he puts his arm out between me and the dashboard, in full protective mode. Behind us, a frustrated tailgater honks. And from the console between us, a female voice from his phone says, “Hard brake alert.”
The voice came from a smart car app called Dash, of which Edis is the cofounder and CEO. The app, which rolled out on Google Play for Android at the end of January (and is coming soon for iOS), connects your phone to your car and relays detailed, real-time data about your driving habits back to you. It is a Techstars New York-backed startup, and its investors include Foursquare cofounder and CEO Dennis Crowley and Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis. Edis just demonstrated a feature that alerts a driver when they’ve decelerated too quickly, one of many notifications built into the app aimed at making driving safer, greener, and more affordable.
Inspired by existing smart data technology like the Jawbone Up wristband and the Nest thermostat, Edis and his cofounder, Brian Langel, saw an opportunity to bring data analysis to cars. “We were viewing cars as a platform, and we really hadn’t seen anything in the market in summer of 2012 that was really creating interesting new experiences based off the data around driving,” Edis says. The idea is that, by making people aware of their driving habits, they will take the necessary steps to improve those habits, leaving us with safer roads and lower fuel emissions.
Dash works by connecting to an OBD (onboard diagnostics) device that scans the inner workings of a car. Once connected, the Dash app pulls the vehicle’s VIN number, make, model, capacity, and cylinders, and allows you to assign your car a name. For our purposes, today we’re driving an Audi Q5, which, to my delight, Edis has named “Jessica’s Audi.” (This is probably the first and last time I’ll ever have such a car).
While the trip is in progress, the app provides a visual gauge of fuel MPG, and auditory alerts for behavior like hard braking and over-accelerating. It’s all as hands-free as possible, to avoid adding any kind of distraction to a driver. The app also tells you if you’re low on fuel, and where you can get the cheapest gas in the area (one of my personal favorite features). If there’s a problem with the car, Dash will alert you, and provide a detailed rundown of the problem, an estimated cost for parts and labor, and a recommended mechanic close by, based on rates from Yelp. In trials, Edis says Dash often diagnosed car problems before the check engine light even came on. “It’s actually really useful because you can get ahead of the problem,” he says.
The app is built around the concept of a score. Acceleration, hard braking, speeding, phone usage, fuel efficiency, time of day, and road conditions all go into a score. My initial impression is that Edis himself isn’t a great driver. His overall Dash score sits at 79 (out of 100), and a quick peek at his previous journeys reveals scores as low as 37. “I’ll tell you that I don’t think I’m a great driver,” he admits. “So this is why this product is great for me to improve that. I literally get this perverse joy to see the score going up and down when I am taking trips with my family. We got feedback from people saying it gets strangely addicting.”
Addicting and, Edis hopes, shareable. The app gives drivers the option to connect with their Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare, and offers Bumper Stickers–a variation on Foursquare badges–for certain behaviors (Pat Benatar Thinks You’re A Hard-Breaker; Ozone’zilla, Turning Clouds Into Ashes).
But is driving really a social activity? Edis says initially, he and Langel weren’t sure, but internal analytics show people are spending a lot of time on the app’s Leaderboard, which ranks drivers. “There’s a lot of ego involved in driving,” Edis says. “Everyone believes they’re a better driver than they really are.” The hope is that gamifying driving will encourage people to be better drivers, and then brag about it.
Reviews in the Google Play store, while generally positive, suggest users think the app is cool, but aren’t sure what to do with it. “Only issue, if you can call it that, is there is a dearth of actual useful car based info,” says one. “I like the app, but I’m still not entirely sure what this app does for me,” reads another. Most people know they’ve just slammed on their brakes without needing to be told, right? Edis counters: “You may know what a hard brake is, but sometimes you just need to be told. You start to feel when you’re drawing up to a hard brake, or when you’re over accelerating, and you calibrate yourself and you stop doing it. And that’s precisely the kind of behavioral change that we’re trying to enact here to make the roads safer.”
Perhaps most impressive about Dash are the implications it has for the future. The company is already in talks with “insurance companies, car companies, with billboard companies, agencies and brand advertisers, fleets, rental cars, ride-sharing services, the list goes on and on,” Edis says. The tool doesn’t share any of your driving information now, but in the future, it could give you the option to share your Dash score with an insurance company for a lower premium. Edis didn’t share with me which companies, specifically, they’re speaking with, but said, “all of them have come to us, we haven’t gone to them.”
Soon, updates to the app will allow Dash to trigger actions based on data. For example, if you’re in an accident, then the app could automatically call 9-1-1 or family members. Or, parents could tell the app to notify them if their kid drives above a certain speed, or late at night. Edis also says he wants the app to be able to tell you when you’re speeding, based on the local speed limit.
Towards the end of our spin, Edis actually does run a red light, completely by accident, which proves somewhat of an obvious point about tools like Dash: they make your car smarter, but certainly not autonomous. They can’t tell you you’re coming up on a red light, or if you’re signaling too late, or tailgating. In that sense, the behavioral data they surface can only go so far to encourage better driving, perhaps serving as a happy middle ground between being in complete control, and relinquishing it to a self-driving vehicle.
“At the end of the day,” Edis says, “technology cannot account for every nuance of human behavior or stupidity.”