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San Francisco Company Battles Gas Wasting with Gadget that Turns Off Car

The technology can save the average driver more than $200 a year in fuel costs and cut down on over 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, depending on driving habits.

(Tribune News Service) -- Drivers have long complained about the gasoline they waste while stuck in traffic or at red lights. Now a San Francisco startup has developed gas-saving technology that shuts down and restarts a car’s engine.

Voyomotive, which will launch a Kickstarter fundraising campaign in mid-April, says its technology can save the average driver more than $200 a year in fuel costs and cut down on over 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, depending on driving habits.

“If you had an average car and you were driving an hour a day and saved 20 minutes of idling time, which is easy to do in San Francisco, you could save for an average car about 60 gallons per year,” said Voyomotive CEO and co-founder Peter Yorke.

Drivers of hybrid gas-electric vehicles are already familiar with the fuel-extending benefits of their gas engines automatically shutting off at long lights or in stop-and-go traffic.

Hybrids, however, use an electric-powered engine and generally cost more to buy than a regular gas-engine car, although automakers are introducing more start-stop models with conventional engines.

But Voyomotive’s start-stop technology is designed to work with existing conventional engines.

At the center of the technology is a $99 palm-size device called the Voyo, which plugs into a car’s onboard diagnostic port. Known as the OBD-II, it’s a government-mandated port built into all American cars since 1996, originally for repair technicians to diagnose how well a car was operating.

Many devices

Voyomotive is one of several startups that have introduced a spate of OBD-II devices that plug into the under-dashboard port to link via Bluetooth with smartphone apps to give consumers access to their car’s data.

The Voyo can monitor numerous computer-controlled systems, including brake and fuel systems, and reports that data back to an app on the driver’s smartphone.

The Voyo automatically feeds information into the Voyomotive Cloud, an online database that will provide other Voyo owners real-time traffic and weather conditions.

Voyo uses that crowdsourced data to calculate how long individual stoplights stay red. The app also displays a cloud icon on a map when the system detects drivers are activating their windshield wipers, and a warning triangle icon when it reads that drivers are slamming on their brakes or swerving hard, probably to avoid a crash or road hazard.

It can also also be programmed to remotely lock when the driver (holding a smartphone) walks a certain distance away from the parked car, and automatically unlock the doors as the driver approaches.

And it can prevent the engine from starting during certain hours or unless the smartphone is detected inside the vehicle. It can also send a text alert to parents telling them if their teens are in an accident or driving unsafely.

While Voyomotive isn’t the first company to tap into an OBD-II port, it’s apparently the first to use the technology in an after-market device that stops and restarts an engine to save fuel.

Big advantage

That’s “a nontrivial separation between them and everyone else in the market,” said automotive industry analyst Roger Lanctot.

“They’ve dug in (further) and enabled start-stop, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world,” said Lanctot, associate automotive practice director for Strategy Analytics, a research and consulting firm. “I’ve never even heard anybody talk about it.”

Using two additional relay switch modules that plug into the fuse box in the engine compartment, the Voyo system uses GPS to determine whether a car is at a known long red light.

During a demonstration this week, Yorke stopped a Chevrolet Equinox SUV on Mission and New Montgomery streets, which the cloud database catalogs as a 30-second red light.

Yorke activated engine stop by pressing slightly harder on the brake pedal. When the light on Mission turned green, Yorke lifted his foot slightly off the brake, the starter motor kicked in and the engine restarted.

The system will only stop and start an engine when it “is operating at peak efficiency, so the engine has to be warm, the battery has to be charged,” Yorke said. “And that allows a faster-than-normal restart and therefore less engine wear.”

The system won’t work if the car is climbing a hill. The stop-start system does use the starter motor more than usual, but Voyomotive’s engineers (recruited from the auto industry) insist the process also reduces wear and tear on the engine.

Lanctot has questioned whether the modules could void a car’s warranty, but he said an “old-school” Detroit automotive engineer said it would not.

Still, Voyomotive has to prove it can mass produce a product that works reliably. The company launched in 2011, and only came out of stealth mode recently.

And the company has to convince drivers their gas savings is worth the cost of the service. The basic $99 Voyo device, which connects online through the driver’s mobile phone, will also require an annual $50 network connectivity charge. The company will also offer a $150 Voyo that includes its own $10 per month mobile wireless plan.

On top of that, the two relay switch modules will cost about $50 each.

Voyomotive wants to use its Kickstarter campaign to find 1,000 drivers around the country who would be willing to buy and test a Voyo “in the wild,” including about 250 car owners who would use the stop-start modules, Yorke said.

The company also needs the drivers to help populate the cloud database with information about more traffic signals. It plans to start selling the Voyo this year.

Voyomotive should be able to find those test drivers, especially with Silicon Valley giants like Google and Apple, along with every major car manufacturer, raising awareness of computer-controlled cars by pouring research into technologies that will do everything, including the driving.

'Hottest areas’

The concept of the connected car “is one of the hottest areas in the Silicon Valley right now as well as in the industry,” Yorke said. “It will become a renaissance of a new generation of vehicles and it will all be based around software as opposed to just strictly mechanical engineering.”

Lanctot said Voyomotive also has to overcome skepticism over the failure of previous Kickstarter campaigns by OBD-II makers and general consumer confusion about these devices.

But he said the Voyo could become popular with consumers because it promises “everyday benefits” that go beyond the “Fitbit-style” scoring of their driving habits found in competing OBD-II devices.

Not every car has keyless entry, so “being able to walk up to the car and unlock it every day, that’s pretty cool,” he said.

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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