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The Next “GPS” of Data?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Innovation Opportunities with Vehicles

By: Melissa C. Lott and Ian Kalin, Presidential Innovation Fellow, U.S. Department of Energy

When weather and GPS data were first made publically available by the U.S. government, it is fair to say that no one expected that either would have as large an impact as they do today.  Even if enthusiasts had anticipated new navigation systems, few would have forecasted inventions like GPS-powered precision crop farming, which ultimately lowers the cost of food in supermarkets.  The total economic impact of weather and GPS data is estimated to be $100 billion in the last year alone.  Inspired by this real impact, a growing number of innovators are wondering if liberating data from people’s cars and trucks could have similar impact on the American economy.

Imagine this.  You’re driving in the center of a big city looking for a parking space.  Your car and smart-phone automatically recognize that you’re looking for a parking space and open your free “SmartPark app,” which prompts you with the audible, no-hands-required message, “There’s a free parking spot two blocks ahead of you, on the left.”

The truth is – you could be receiving these types of notifications today using existing data resources.

How is this possible?

In order to make the hypothetical SmartPark App work, you essentially need three types of data, all of which are easily accessible:

  1. Parking space availability
  2. GPS data on your location
  3. Vehicle driving behavior data

The first – parking space availability data – is already provided for free by San Francisco and other innovative cities.  Using a system of wireless sensors embedded in streets and city garages, the “SFpark” app monitors 7,000 metered parking spots and 12,250 garage spots. Download the app, and you can see where spaces have recently opened up.

GPS data is already widely used in stand-alone navigation and smart phone systems. By giving your phone permission to follow your current location, you are connected to a system of satellites that can pinpoint your location.  Smart phones also leverage satellite proxies like the triangulation of one’s position between wireless routers.

Only one of these datasets – the direct data feed from your vehicle – is not widely in today’s marketplace. This driving behavior dataset would give your app indicators that you are looking for a parking spot. For instance, it could use slow speeds, frequent turns, and extended waiting periods near your GPS-provided destination address to determine that you are trying to park.

Amazingly, the access and interoperability of the data is not the barrier here.  Thanks to the On-Board Diagnostics (OBD-II) port – an industry standard hardware for emissions control that also carries other key information streams – this dataset exists today in all U.S. vehicles manufactured after 1996.   But, the data has not yet been fully unlocked for the vehicle owner’s direct benefit.  And, it’s hard to say exactly why.

There are a few signal flares indicating impending entrepreneurship related to these data.  Progressive Auto Insurance, for example, now offers an insurance product called the SnapShot that adjusts your insurance premium offer after directly monitoring information like average speeds and rapid braking using a small plug-in device that Progressive provides.  General Motor’s OnStar system uses data from vehicles’ controller area network (commonly referred to as the CAN bus) to provide support following an accident.  Emerging market platforms exist for OBD-driven apps like Ford Motor Company’s Open XC platform and a MIT-and-Singapore University project called CloudCar.mobi that could become the next iTunes or Google Play store.  For those parents with young drivers, a start-up company called Moj.io is seeking to provide a service that will text you whenever your teenager exceeds a speed limit.

These data could also be used to optimize maintenance schedules. Imagine this, instead of changing your car’s oil every 5,000 miles- or whatever the guide is in the vehicle’s user manual – your car could tell you when the oil actually needed to be changed.  Such condition-based maintenance could lead to significant savings on an annual basis.   But that’s just the beginning. Startup companies like PEV4ME and Xatori are also taking these data and mashing them up with electric vehicles to provide advanced monitoring and control options such as how to best charge your electric vehicle at the lowest cost.

To spur innovation with vehicle data, the Department of Energy recently launched a $50,000 Apps for Vehicles Challenge, which seeks to improve safety and fuel efficiency through technology innovation.  This two phase incentive prize requires only “Ideations” – or business plans and mock up proposals – by the January 15th deadline.

Just like with weather and GPS data, it’s hard to tell exactly how these vehicle data will empower entrepreneurs and innovators to deliver new products and services.  Perhaps the most inspiring part about this data liberation is that people can get their OWN data.  It may be their own foot on their accelerator pedal, but by working with third-party providers, they could turn their data into something of value, such as altering driving habits to save money on fuel.  And, in turn, data owners could be safer and have better fuel efficiency while also supporting innovative new companies.

To learn more about the Energy Data Initiative, Apps for Vehicles Challenge – link

To learn more about OBD-II – link.

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of GPS devices in a car by mroach and used under this Creative Commons license.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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Comments 4 Comments

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  1. 1. williamlweaver 8:44 am 12/13/2012

    Hi Melissa!

    Great article. This technology already exists at http://www.waze.com. I wonder if the DOE had waze in mind…

    Link to this
  2. 2. MoEnergySci 11:09 am 12/13/2012

    Good article. Would like to see the data out there on how much energy is wasted idling cars when stuck in traffic, circling for parking, or other things that we might be able to avoid. Could give an idea of the potential impact of those types of applications. Do you have any suggestions on who tracks those types of things?

    Link to this
  3. 3. jimven 7:06 pm 12/13/2012

    This might work well initially when few people have it. But if everyone had it, can you imagine the swarm of cars jamming down their accelerators to get to the same spot before somebody else got it? Yikes!

    Link to this
  4. 4. jtdwyer 8:38 am 12/14/2012

    Interesting – I hadn’t heard of the parking space monitor data. However, wouldn’t it be simpler and more reliable for a driver to simply inform an app that a parking spot is required that for some app to attempt to determine that behaviorally? Click on the ‘find parking spot’ app icon…

    Link to this

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