New Device Aims to Keep Drivers' Hands on the Wheel

The Smart Dash app and driver information system is a portable, voice-activated safety solution that will allow drivers to link phone, audio system and a backup camera to a single tablet app that responds to voice commands.

by Matt M. Johnson, McClatchy News Service / August 8, 2014
Texting and driving might be against the law, but taking pictures isn't, lol. Flickr/underactive

 Three Englishmen sit down in an office in Florida and start building an app that will get drivers who text, talk and email to put their phones away and focus on the road.

While this setup could sound like a joke, The Smart Dash app and driver information system -- being designed by Bradenton entrepreneurs Chris Tunmore, Andrew Britt and Roger Pellew -- is anything but. For Tunmore, whose 17-year-old, smartphone-addicted daughter, Thais, just started driving, coming up with a piece of affordable software and hardware to separate phone and driver while a car is in motion is a life-and-death proposition.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 3,300 people died in car accidents caused by "distracted driving" in 2012. Ten percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in vehicle fatalities were distracted at the time of an accident.

"We give them a phone and then we give them keys to a 3,000- or 4,000-pound car and we say 'Please don't use the phone,'" Tunmore said.

Anyone who uses a smartphone can use some help in disengaging while driving. The business partners are designing a portable, voice-activated safety solution that will allow drivers to link phone, audio system and a backup camera to a single tablet app that responds to voice commands.

The concept isn't entirely new. Car companies will bundle all these functions into onboard computer systems that can cost thousands of dollars in a new car. Smart Dash, which is expected to sell for less than $500, is geared toward drivers who need those functions but who don't want to buy a new car to get them.

The system will come with one other facet parents will want: driver behavior monitoring that allows the system owner to track other drivers' habits, including speed and maneuvering.

Under development for the past year, Smart Dash is still more than six months from going into production. The transplanted think tank of Great Britons has prototype hardware being designed and built in Canada and app software under design in Spain. Meanwhile, the three former engineers are promoting their product out of their office and warehouse space at 2331 63rd Ave., and are launching a Kickstarter crowd-funding effort.

The partners have already put about $100,000 of their own money into startup and development. Britt, who previously owned and operated Bradenton injection molding company Cadmold Inc., said he believes Smart Dash can simplify the distracting, behind-the-wheel environment that smart phones have created. It will remove the temptation to look away from the road to read text messages, send texts, dial the phone or read emails.

"Everything that people want from their phone is housed in one app," Britt said.

The technological undergirding of Smart Dash comes out of a powerful GPS motorsports product the partners recently took to market. It tracks acceleration, speed and other statistics racing drivers use to judge their performance. Tunmore, Britt and Pellew expanded on the concept for Smart Dash, adding digital device voice control. Their $395, dash-mounted product will use Google now voice-recognition software running on an 8-inch Android tablet to connect drivers to the Smart Dash app. Drivers will be able to send and receive texts and email verbally, and conduct phone calls hands free.

Other features will include navigation and real-time weather and traffic reports.

The system connects directly to a car's computer system through a port. Car audio systems are controlled via a strong, local FM signal, while the phone link is made through Bluetooth. Smart Dash is being designed to diagnose engine problems and translate repair messages for drivers, and get repair estimates on the spot. Smart Dash hopes to ink partnerships with national car repair chains to generate those quotes.

Tunmore said Smart Dash is currently partnered with T-Mobile as a cellular provider for its system.

Customers who already own a tablet will be able to purchase the app, tablet mounting kit and driver monitoring for about $195. Both Android and Apple tablets will be compatible with Smart Dash.

Tunmore said the product has a potential market spanning about 200 million vehicles in the United States. It will hold appeal to buyers who want a digital distraction management system that can be moved from vehicle to vehicle, including to recreational vehicles and rental cars.

Tunmore also sees Smart Dash as a useful tool for commercial fleet operators needing to retrofit vehicles with the driver behavior tool.

Kickstarter is expected to be a major part of the company's marketing.

Set up to raise the $100,000 needed to start production, the campaign will put the first Smart Dash units into the marketplace by rewarding donors who give more than $195 with production models.

Campaign contributors who give smaller amounts will qualify for T-shirts and other thank-you gifts.

The partners say they will produce all components of Smart Dash in the U.S. Ideally, they will bring software development and other production components to the Bradenton area.

©2014 The Bradenton Herald (Bradenton, Fla.)