Illume’s iZUP Mobile App Padlocks Cell Phones to Eliminate the Temptation to Talk or Text While Driving

5/17/10Follow @xconomy

If you’ve been paying attention to news headlines, consumer safety reports, and state laws, you know that you shouldn’t be talking or texting on your cell phone while driving. But sometimes the temptation to stay off your phone is just too strong, especially when it rings or beeps with incoming calls or texts.

And now, there’s an app for that. It’s called iZUP (sounds like “eyes up”), from Newton, MA-based Illume Software, and it is like a virtual padlock for your mobile. The application harnesses GPS technology so that when you’re traveling faster than 5 miles per hour, your phone sends incoming calls to voicemail and prevents you from texting or making outgoing calls(there are a few exceptions, but more on that in a bit).

“Technology got us into this challenge, and technology has the chance to get us out of this challenge,” says Illume CEO Daniel Ross, who joined the company in January.

So far there’s been no shortage of opinions about texting or talking while behind the wheel, and no shortage of attempts at eliminating cell phone distractions for drivers, he says. Hardware products that shut down phones in cars are expensive, and cell phone carriers have viewed technologies that try to block driver cell phone usage at the network level as invasive, Ross says. In the meantime, consumers have long looked to Bluetooth technologies that allow them chat hands free, or software that translates voice to text, as safe (or at least safer) ways to talk and text while driving.

But recent consumer safety reports have shown that hands-free talking while driving demands multi-tasking, impairing driver performance and making it difficult for drivers to react quickly. So by far the safest way to deal with your phone while driving is to not use it. For Illume, this means nipping the temptation in the bud by preventing audible alerts from coming through while users are moving. The app is always running, so consumers don’t have to remember to turn their phones off or silence their ringers.

The idea came in 2006 from Darcy Ahl, now Illume’s VP of public affairs, who was a passenger as her teenage son was driving when both of their cell phones went off—causing them to swerve across a stretch of Connecticut’s I-95 highway. (Having grown up a few minutes from the heavily trafficked interstate, I know firsthand this is one of the last places on Earth you want to be caught off guard as a driver.) Luckily neither mother nor son was hurt, but the experience pushed Ahl to wonder if it could have been prevented with technology. She sought out some people in the mobile technology she knew from her job at an executive search firm, and Illume launched in 2008. (Ahl originally started the company under the name CellBlock Telecommunications.)

“It started from a parent’s concern for her son’s safety as a new driver,” Ross says.

As a result, iZUP is widely targeted to parents who want to keep tabs on their newly licensed teenagers, and to those managing commercial fleets of drivers, such as utility companies. It’s also gaining traction among individuals who want to monitor themselves, as more and more companies are coming out with policies that dictate they terminate employees who are caught on their cell phones while driving.

IZUP works on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile system, RIM’s BlackBerry phones, and Google’s Android platforms. Once Apple comes out with the version of its iPhone that allows the running of background applications and multi-tasking, iZUP will hit that platform, too (that’s expected sometime this summer). To keep in line with its young-driver target, Illume’s app will also soon be available on Qualcomm’s Brew mobile phone platform, which isn’t a smart phone but is heavily oriented around texting, and widely attractive to teens, Ross says.

“It’s really critical that we’re not being selective, saying you get to be safer, and you don’t,” Ross says of the company’s deployment to a slew of mobile platforms.

Auto insurance company Nationwide recently announced it would offer a financial incentive for customers who have a solution for preventing driver distraction, such as the Illume system, Ross says. They’re offering an annual discount ranging from 3 percent to 5 percent of a family policy. Nationally, such a policy averages about $2,400, but is closer to $4,000 or higher in the New England area, he says, meaning the discount could save families anywhere from about $70 to $200, a year.

IZUP costs $4.95 a month or $49.95 a year for individuals, and $9.95 a month or $79.95 for a family of five—meaning customers will roughly break even on the low end of the insurance spectrum and come out on top with the potential $200-a-year insurance discount, and be far safer in the bargain, Ross says. There are less than 10,000 paying users for the app, which hit the market in December 2009, though he didn’t give me an exact sales figure.

So what about those emergencies when you just have to use your phone while driving? Well, Illume has accounted for those in its technology. The app allows for three “white-listed” numbers, which can get through even while the phone is moving. Parents typically set up their teens’ systems so that they’re one of these numbers, and employers do the same for their fleet drivers, Ross says. This makes iZUP a better solution than just turning your phone off, for parents or managers who still want the feeling of connectedness with the drivers they’re in charge of, he says. IZUP also enables drivers to call 911 at any point while driving.

What if you’re a passenger in a car, or on a train, say—or maybe you’re booking on a run or riding your bike on a country road? Technically, since iZUP activates when you’re going faster than 5 mph, you might find calls and texts blocks in all these activities. Ross points out that it’s probably dangerous to be talking or texting while running or biking, anyway. But for those who are in a moving vehicle as a passenger, the app’s plan administrator can set a password that allows them to unlock the phone, he says.

Illume has garnered the support of cell phone carriers, who are starting to sell the app directly through their own websites. Illume’s application doesn’t interfere with mobile plan activity, as texts and voicemails are delivered to the user as soon as they come to a stop, Ross says. (Well, in an attempt to prevent those who try to cheat by talking and texting at stoplights, you actually have to be stopped for about two minutes for your phone to kick in again.)

The iZUP application allows users to run one other app on their phone while driving, which most people use for purposes such as GPS-based driving directions. “We complement, we do not compete with their apps,” Ross says.

In October, Ryan wrote that the company had added another $1 million to its $2.4 million Series A round. Ross didn’t give an exact funding total, but told me that Illume has raised less than $10 million and has no institutional investors, just backing from a group of angels.

Consumers have become so glued to their cell phones that reaching for them has become second nature, even while driving. IZUP will essentially help drivers retrain themselves on this level, as over time they get used to their phones not ringing, Ross projects.

“Behaviorally, your brain knows that you’re not going to reach for your phone, because it’s not available,” he says.

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