With GreenRoad, using data to help truckers drive more safely, efficiently

Drivers' perception of how safe or efficient their road habits are is incorrect. GreenRoad offers data to show companies how truckers can be safer and save them money, too.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

When it comes to driving, truckers know more than you.

And why wouldn't they? Truckers -- especially long-haul ones -- make a living in the driver's seat.

Mile markers melt away.

No road construction can faze them.

And if you've ever seen a trucker calmly navigate the Verrazano Narrows in New York City during rush hour, you know that they're as confident in their driving as we are.

Anecdotes aside -- we've all had a close brush with one on the highway -- that confidence may or may not be unfounded.

The folks at GreenRoadwant data on truckers and their driving skills. And it's not just a matter of safety, either -- according to them, data can reveal inefficient habits they weren't even aware of.

Better still, real-time feedback can help change those habits for the better.

According to the company, use of its in-vehicle device has helped its 80 customers reduce emissions and fuel use by up to 10 percent. That might not seem like much, but for a fleet of 1,000 trucks, that translates to anywhere from $1 million to $4 million per year. And crash costs are sliced in half, too.

I spoke with GreenRoad CEO Dan Steere in July about his company's technology. According to Steere, changing drivers' behavior can make a bigger impact than any hybrid vehicle on the market today.

SmartPlanet: How did GreenRoad come to be?

DS: The guy who is now our CTO [founder Ofer Raz] was almost run off the road one night, coming home late from a job. He pulled over on the side of the road, got his wits about him, and started thinking about people's driving. That led to a series of coffee shop conversations [with co-founder and safety chief Hod Fleischman], which got to the topic of, what's really the issue with driving? Safety and efficiency.

The thing they quickly realized that billions of dollars get invested in vehicle equipment. There's a huge discussion and investment around that, and policy debates around the roads themselves. In fact, the biggest contributor [to what happens] was the driver.

Our whole mission in life is to use technology to better understand people's driving. We take that information and provide different types of automated feedback and coaching and reporting and recognition to drivers and related people -- managers, et cetera. To help them make better decisions behind the wheel. When they do that, they crash less and burn less fuel.

SmartPlanet: Why hasn't there been more focus on the driver? It seems obvious.

DS: Until a few year's ago, you didn't have the tools to do it. You might put several hundred thousand dollars of [test] equipment in a few vehicles. Maybe 100 if it's a really big study.

You suddenly had a toolset you could do a lot of different things.

SmartPlanet: What have you learned about drivers' habits?

DS: Much of people's perception about risk and efficiency is incorrect. The common perception when you think about safety or efficiency is that it's about the vehicle you're driving. [People think that] if you want to get better mileage, you need to buy a hybrid.

It turns out that a far bigger impact in the next 10 years on fuel consumption and efficiency is going to be using the assets we have more efficiently, rather than replacing the assets wholesale.

Electric vehicles are going to take decades to replace existing technology. It's much better to make gains now.

Safety is about extreme behaviors. The person is about extreme behavior. In fact, most people [with risky driving habits] are well-intentioned people who do small things and don't realize that they're burning a little more gas or are a little less safe. Subtle changes in driving style can fix that.

I really am a strong proponent of resource efficiency. The debate in cleantech is too-often dominated by new technologies. And I believe new technologies are vital. It's always more effective to use something more efficiently rather than replace it entirely.

SmartPlanet: OK, so changing habits works. How do you get in the cabin?

DS: There's a piece of hardware that we install in the vehicle that sits in the dash. It's a combination of sensors, a GPS receiver, a cellular modem and a processor that allows us to run our software algorithms. Anytime the vehicle is moving, we're using those algorithms to recognize risky or inefficient behavior.

Say I'm driving and I make a right-hand turn. We'll analyze before, during and after that turn. An example of one maneuver is hitting the brakes moderately in the middle of the turn. That's not something extreme, but we recognize that behavior correlates with a higher risk of having a crash. The reason for that is that the driver who's in the middle of a turn can't anticipate the road ahead or can't anticipate something sudden that requires a change their speed.

We classify that as a yellow maneuver. There are over 120 different kinds of maneuvers that we recognize. Anytime we recognize one that is inefficient or risky, we send that back to our servers. That kicks off feedback. There's a small meter in the vehicle with three lights -- after I finish that turn, I'll see a yellow light that flashes for 10 seconds. That serves as a cue for our driver.

On the server side, we automatically aggregate a behavior profile that provides advice and coaching that's geared toward that profile. That type of high-level feedback is generated automatically and gets sent to every driver that has access to e-mail.

As a business manager, you can understand the tendencies and behavior that a particular group has.

The vast majority of improvement comes from us providing the direct feedback. Drivers can also log into a web portal to see what is happening and where -- it's very transparent. We're showing them, objectively, here's what you're doing and how you can improve.

SmartPlanet: A little yellow light doesn't seem like much feedback. Why so simple?

DS: The last thing you want to do is take away their attention driving. We've settled on the types of feedback that are most effective for driving. It wasn't about cost -- we're a subscription-based service -- it was about that other factor.

SmartPlanet: Who are your clients?

DS: We're in tens of thousands of drivers vehicles, split between the U.S. and Europe. Ryder Logistics has been a successful client of ours. First Group, the largest bus provider, has been a successful client of ours. We're installed in every vertical within commercial vehicles. The issues of safety and fuel efficiency turn out to be as important to a cable satellite installer as they do a city bus driver.

Improve safety and improve environmental impact -- both of which lead to savings.

You can go out and spend tens of thousands to buy hybrids. The alternative is to put our service in place and you get results immediately. Instead of paying for a result, you get paid to produce a better result. That's very easy for businesses to understand.

SmartPlanet: How about the consumer space? People might be fascinated to learn how well or poorly they drive. Any opportunity there?

DS: Today we've done pilots with consumers. There's not a consumer product in the market today from GreenRoad. However, it's pretty clear that the combination of lower priced insurance and technology like ours would expose us to consumers.

SmartPlanet: How about cities? Public transit seems like a natural opening.

DS: Government contracts can be interesting business opportunities.

One partnership we had is a great example of cooperation between local government and us: Transport for London, which operates the tube and buses. The other charter they have is to improve the environmental impact of road transportation in London and also to improve safety in London. They were quite helpful in promoting GreenRoad to the commercial base in London.

In general, you still have the issue that public policy is missing a huge opportunity in cleantech. Look at the news around U.S. Department of Energy initiatives in clean technology -- we should be investing to move from oil to renewable fuels or electric vehicles. You see tons of government funding around these technologies, and yet the biggest gains around environmental impact are around efficiency. Using the existing infrastructure more efficiently.

I think a lot of the public debate about safety also misses the boat. The profile of safety incidents with Toyota's vehicles a few months ago, for example. Any crash is a tragic thing, and you never want to belittle one, but today, millions of Americans are going to the emergency room because of [auto] crashes. More than 90 percent of the time decisions that the driver made contribute to the crash. Instead of focusing on a few potential equipment problems, we should be focusing on a driver's contribution.

It's not about the equipment, it's about the driver.

SmartPlanet: How do you break through the noise? With Toyota, it's easy to point fingers at a visible target.

DS: We're working hard to get the word out for that, and in the meantime, we're building a business. Some customers buy because there's an environmental directive that is a corporate goal. Some companies buy because they want to do zero harm. Businesses will buy products because of policy.

Today, if you're in a distribution business, you wouldn't imagine running it without supply chain software. The same is true here. You won't imagine operating a large fleet of vehicles without GreenRoad.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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