Tech startups striving to revolutionize driving
San Francisco — A veteran computer scientist hates sitting in his car at stop lights, so he creates software that makes the experience less annoying. A former engineering professor wants to double the range of today’s electric vehicles. And an aeronautics expert believes flying cars shouldn’t be science fiction.
It’s no secret that technology is changing the car industry. The major automakers, as well as tech giants such as Google and possibly Apple, are laying the groundwork for the first driverless cars.
Here are three startups that want to change the way you drive:
Connected Signals: Traffic lights bring order to intersections, but have their inconveniences: They turn red when you’re in a hurry; they take forever to change green. And then your mind wanders while you wait — until the guy behind you starts leaning on his horn.
Entrepreneur and computer scientist Matt Ginsberg hates red lights. So he started Connected Signals, based in Eugene, Oregon, to collect real-time data from cities that synchronize their traffic signals. The company’s smartphone app tells motorists if an upcoming signal is about to change color. It shows drivers how long they’ll have to wait if a light is red — and chimes a warning just before it turns green.
The app helps prevent distraction, unnecessary acceleration and delays, Ginsberg says. BMW has added it to its driver display. Ginsberg also sees an opportunity in selling data for automotive systems that shut off a car’s engine to save gas during longer red lights. One hurdle is getting the raw data from individual cities: Ginsberg has agreements with about 100 towns and hopes to cover half the United States by 2017.
Sakti3: Most electric vehicles on the market only go 100 miles on a charge. A better battery is the industry’s “Holy Grail,” says investor Quin Garcia of Auto Tech Ventures, which funds automotive startups.
Sakti3, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is among several startups trying new approaches to lithium-ion batteries. Founder Ann Marie Sastry, a former engineering professor at the University of Michigan, was invited to a White House event this month to explain her ideas for making powerful batteries more cheaply.
It’s not enough to come up with an idea for a new battery, Sastry said. “If you can’t make it cost-effectively, you can’t have an impact.” She’s using computer simulations to design processes for making solid-state batteries that are lighter and hold twice the energy, providing more range. Appliance-maker Dyson Inc. has invested in Sakti3 and wants to use its technology. General Motors is also an investor.
Terrafugia: Terrafugia, a privately backed startup in Woburn, Massachusetts, admits on its website that flying cars have become a pop-culture symbol for dreams that don’t come true. CEO Carl Dietrich wants to change that.
Two years ago, Dietrich and his co-founders — all MIT graduates — wowed observers at a Wisconsin air show by flying a gasoline-powered light plane the size of an SUV, which can fold its wings and meet legal requirements for highway driving. The company hopes to deliver a version to customers in 2017, at an anticipated price of $279,000.
Terrafugia is also working on a concept for a sleeker, electric-powered vehicle with rotors for vertical takeoff. But Dietrich acknowledged it will take years to achieve his goal of using software and automation to build a car that doesn’t require a pilot’s license to fly.
“Our first product is very much an airplane that can be driven,” Dietrich says, “but it’s putting our company in position to make a car that can fly.”
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