Reporting from Redwood Shores, Calif. — Companies worried about drivers trying to sneak a squealing wheelie with their commercial vehicles now have a way to instantly track and prevent such maneuvers without having a traffic cop ride shotgun.
Offering a product that some critics say reminds them too much of Big Brother, a Bay Area company has been outfitting vehicles with devices that warn drivers when they've suddenly swerved or slammed on the brakes and then post the information online for managers to see.
The company that developed the devices, GreenRoad Technologies Inc., said the system helps slice risky driving behavior in half and is eco-friendly. Executives said clients are saving as much as $4,000 per vehicle per year, and on average crashes have been reduced by 54%, crash repair costs slashed by 49% and fuel costs cut by up to 15%.
"People spend a lot of money making crashes less lethal when it's really all about the driver," said GreenRoad Chief Executive Dan Steere. "We're taking a fresh look at the field, taking a point of view that very few people have taken."
Commonly known as telematics, technologies that help "communicate" with a vehicle, often to track where it is, have been around for years. The GreenRoad system takes the technology a step further.
The system includes a small black box mounted on the dashboard with an LED bulb, connected to a sensor that uses algorithms to pick up more than 120 subtle or severe changes in driving style.
Each time the driver makes a precarious move, the light flashes yellow. If the egregious activity continues, the light changes and stays red. Stable drivers get a green light.
The system also wirelessly beams a performance report to a website, where both the driver and the fleet manager can access it.
More than 90 clients, including the British Army and Arctic Glacier Inc., which operates in Southern California, have paid $1,500 per vehicle to install the GreenRoad module in their corporate fleets for three-year periods. Since it was unveiled in 2007, the system has been installed in 20,000 vehicles.
But some worry that it may have Big Brother overtones.
"We're certainly skeptical," said Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman with trucking trade group Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. "Would you want to work for a company that keeps track of your every move and questions everything you're doing — even if it's for your safety and others'?"
Invasiveness is often the first concern voiced by drivers at Ryder System Inc., which installed the GreenRoad module in 900 of its trucks, including 10 in Los Angeles.
"Drivers are a little apprehensive at first," said Kent Wiles, 45, a driver for the company, which is based in Evansville, Ind. "In the beginning, you run into some concerns about independence, about whether you're going to get in trouble for the way you're driving."
But Wiles, who drives trailers, box trucks and a variety of other vehicles while also training other drivers, said most people quickly get used to GreenRoad and soon begin to change their behavior "without thinking about it."
"It's kind of like a performance report," he said. "As the program starts up and you become acclimated to it, it becomes like bragging rights. Drivers challenge each other with it."
Motor vehicle crashes cost $230 billion in the U.S. each year, according to the Department of Transportation. Truckers, a large portion of GreenRoad's clientele, are ranked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as among the riskiest professions, along with miners and loggers.
The company was founded in Israel by Hod Fleishman and Ofer Raz in 2003 after Raz was nearly run off the road by some rowdy young drivers while cruising one night in Tel Aviv.
Angel investors in Israel provided some of the early seed money. Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson's Virgin Green Fund poured $14.5 million into the venture in 2008.
Generation Investment, a fund co-founded by Al Gore, pitched in $10 million in February.
GreenRoad's headquarters are now in Silicon Valley, in a corporate park near Oracle Corp.'s headquarters. Raz is now the company's chief technology officer, and Fleishman is chief of safety.
The system has GPS capabilities that can pinpoint the vehicle's route and transfers a summary online soon after the ignition is turned off.
Reports can be customized to individual drivers or entire fleets, by vehicle, even by day, trip or hour. Managers can also see what the physical terrain of the route looked like, as well as "heat maps" that show clusters of dangerous maneuvers organized by area.
Drivers are classified as green if they have 20 or fewer dangerous maneuvers every 10 hours, yellow if they have 21 to 50 and red if they have more than 50. Within weeks of getting data from GreenRoad, drivers tend to scale back the number of dangerous incidents by 40% to 70%, Steere said.
The module has helped lower the number of moving violations and preventable accidents at Quickway Carriers, which specializes in trucking refrigerated products to Kroger grocery stores. Harry Crabtree, vice president of safety and recruiting at the Nashville company, said excessive idling among the 400 trucks with the device has dropped 40% and gas mileage has improved 4%.
"The drivers like independence, and here they're allowed to monitor themselves without intervention," Crabtree said. "And it's helped us improve our margins."