App Tells Drivers What to Expect at Traffic Lights

The EnLighten App, from Connected Signals out of Eugene, Ore., gives drivers real-time updates about how long lights will stay green or red.

by Sherri Buri McDonald, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore. / August 24, 2015
The EnLighten App delivers real-time traffic updates to the center console of new BMWs. Connected Signals
(TNS) -- Years from now, a Eugene startup may look back at the day BMW emailed it as its “lucky break.”

The startup, Connected Signals, developed EnLighten, an app that gives drivers information about upcoming traffic lights. Enlighten tells drivers how long a green light they’re approaching will stay green and how long they’ll have to wait at a red light, resulting in a safer, saner and more fuel-­efficient drive, said Connected Signals’ co-founder Matt Ginsberg.

The company had been working in relative obscurity until BMW, the world’s top-selling luxury car maker, recently announced that it is partnering with the tiny firm to bring EnLighten’s traffic signal data inside BMW navigation screens.

The press around the BMW announcement has been “tremendously positive,” said Ginsberg, who is a pilot, playwright and author of New York Times crossword puzzles, in addition to being a serial entrepreneur.

“Everything is picking up,” he said. “I’ve been saying from Day 1 the day this gets easier is when I’m picking up the phone more than I’m (dialing) it.”

In the weeks since BMW made its announcement, “we have had between 2,000 and 3,000 requests from people in areas who are requesting coverage,” Ginsberg said. “We get requests like that from all over the world — especially the east and west coasts (of the United States).”

Traffic system officials in Georgia recently contacted the company, Ginsberg said, and he plans to travel next month to speak to officials in southern California.

This affiliation could help Connected Signals persuade more cities to provide the company with real-time traffic signal information and make more drivers aware of EnLighten, which could potentially save lots of energy, Ginsberg said.

“If every car in the world had this, we’d use 30 billion less gallons (of gas) a year, which moves the needle on global warming,” he said.

Connected Signals currently receives traffic signal data feeds from about 100 cities, including Portland, Eugene, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Walnut Creek, Calif., Ginsberg said.

“We have about 10,000 lights,” he said. “About half are here and half are in Australia and New Zealand — countries which sought out Connected Signals.” So that’s 5,000 lights out of the 100,000 total urban traffic lights in the United States that are connected in some way in their particular area.

A big part of the work ahead for Connected Signals is getting more municipalities on board. In order to do that, the company is hiring and raising money, Ginsberg said.

The company has six employees now and plans to add three to four computer programmers in Eugene and two to three business development people in the San Francisco Bay area, he said.

About six months ago it hired an executive chairman, Dennis Capovilla, who has executive experience at Apple and several Bay Area tech firms.

“His arrival was really crucial,” Ginsberg said. “He’s the kind of guy the funding community wants to see.”

Connected Signals is trying to raise $2 million in two rounds. The first round of about $500,000 to $1 million is set to close early this week, and the second round is set to close in one or two months, Ginsberg said.

Connected Signals is owned by 30-plus shareholders. Many of them also hold or held shares in another company founded by Ginsberg, On Time Systems.

On Time Systems is an eight-employee logistics and scheduling company based in Eugene. Connected Signals, formerly known as Green Driver, was incubated within On Time Systems for about a year, then spun off on its own in 2011-2012, Ginsberg said.

On Time Systems has invested about $1 million to $1.5 million into Connected Signals, he said.

The corporate name changed to Connected Signals because the company couldn’t secure the website greendriver.com, he said.

To come up with EnLighten, the name of the app, Ginsberg — who in addition to constructing crosswords created Dr. Fill, a crossword-solving computer program — reached out to wordsmiths in the crossword community. They came up with three names that Ginsberg liked: Speed of Light, Time to Go, and EnLighten.

EnLighten emerged the winner.

“The guys here said that Time to Go wasn’t going to work,” he said.

Eugene was the first city to provide Connected Signals with traffic signal data.

Tom Larsen, the city’s traffic operations manager, said the city agreed to do it because “it was a good idea.”

“The data that we have, if it were in a document form, it would be accessible to the media (or) anyone else,” he said. “It took a little while to figure out how we would do it with protecting the integrity of the data, and his company took it and ran with it.”

“It’s been successful and relatively easy,” Larsen said, adding that “to the best of my knowledge there haven’t been any real issues with it.”

Ginsberg said no city wants to be the first to sign on to a project like this. “Total kudos to Eugene to be willing to be first and to (Mayor) Kitty Piercy for helping us,” Ginsberg said.

But no city wants to be the last, either, he added.

Connected Signals is at the intersection of two technology industry trends. One is “big data” and the company is collecting lots of anonymous driver data, which it believes auto­makers eventually will pay for to improve their vehicles.

The second trend is the “Internet of Things,” referring to the connectivity of physical objects embedded with electronics, software and sensors.

“Now you’re starting to see references to the “Internet of Moving Things,” which is exactly where we are,” Ginsberg said.

The app itself is free to drivers, which is why Ginsberg says he has no idea how many people are using it.

In the BMW version, a dot on the navigational screen, about the size of a 50-cent piece, changes from red to green to reflect the status of the nearest traffic light. There is a visual countdown of seconds a driver will have to wait at a red light, and a chime five seconds before a red light turns green.

“From the very beginning Matt Ginsberg and his team had the same goal as BMW to make traffic signal data available in the car for the driver’s benefit,” Andreas Winckler, the BMW official who initially contacted Connected Signals, wrote in an email. “The whole team has always been really open minded, flexible and dedicated to make this thing work. It was really a great pleasure to work with them and find solutions for many problems we encountered along the way.”

©2015 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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