San Diego’s Bump.com Ready to Hit the Road With Auto-Based Social Networking

3/1/11Follow @bvbigelow

With less than two weeks to go before one of the big tech meetings of the year, the countdown has begun at the Bump network’s headquarters in the scenic San Diego coastal community of La Jolla.

After unveiling a beta version of its Bump.com social network technology at the Demo Fall conference almost six months ago, the startup plans to officially launch the commercial version of the Bump social network at the 18th annual SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive Festival, which begins March 11 in Austin, TX.

In anticipation of Bump.com’s rollout, founder Mitch Thrower tells me the company recently acquired Plateside, a social networking app in the iTunes store, after previously acquiring Platester.com and YourPlates.com. He says Bump.com also closed an undisclosed round of funding last week. Thrower told me several weeks ago that Bump.com was working to raise about $3.5 million, after it had pulled together about $1 million in initial funding (from mostly individual investors) shortly after he founded the company in 2009.

The founding CEO says he started Bump.com with a vision of creating a communications platform that can send voice, text, and e-mail messages to motorists in the Bump network—by simply scanning an image of their license plate.

When you join the Bump network, you essentially activate an account for your car, based on the license plate number listed in public databases for motor vehicle registrations. The company’s technology allows subscribers to use a car’s license plate number to send messages and even place calls through the Bump network. (Once a message has been sent to a license plate through the Bump.com service, it is stored in Bump.com’s database until the owner of the plate registers with Bump.com-a process known as “claiming” a license plate.) Registered users can link their Bump.com account to their mobile phone, and to their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Bump.com also has developed automated license plate recognition technology, capable of reading five license plates per second, so subscribers can use their mobile phone cameras to connect to other vehicles by taking a picture of the license plate.

Predictably, one of Bump.com’s key applications is romantically hitting on someone attractive in another car.

Suzanne Somers in American Graffiti

If the technology had been around for the 1973 film “American Graffiti,” for example, Richard Dreyfuss could have used his smart phone to scan an image of the white T-bird license plate being driven by the beautiful and mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers). He then could have used the Bump network to send her a message directly instead of seeking help from radio DJ Wolfman Jack and spending the rest of movie desperately trying to find her.

“It’s this amazing communications platform that allows anyone to connect with anyone in their cars,” Thrower says. He sees endless possibilities for using the Bump network—not to be confused with Mountain View, CA-based Bump Technologies—pointing out that the technology enables users to communicate V-to-V (as in vehicle-to-vehicle, or consumer-to-consumer) as well as B-to-V (business-to-consumer) and G-to-V (government-to-consumer.)

Thrower, who founded an online marathon registration business called Racegate (which became the Active Network), told me that Bump.com was “a reverse-engineered business.” He said he set out to start a new company thinking, “Let’s find a business model that works, that can be rapidly scaled, and let’s find a service for something that everybody has. In this case, what everybody has is an identity through their car.”

Among status-conscious motorists, Thrower says the car “is the largest item of clothing that people wear,” and in Southern California, people spend an estimated five years (on average) of their lives in their cars. He also sees the license plate attached to the car as “something that’s just hanging out there without giving you any value.” But with Bump.com, he says users get “tremendous value in the form of safety, community, and marketing.”

In terms of safety, Bump discourages drivers from using the Bump service while driving. Using the iPhone’s accelerometer technology, Bump also requires a motorist traveling faster than 5 miles per hour to use a voice interface to speak the license plate number and message.

In terms of community, Bump’s social networking capabilities make it easier to meet strangers on the road. Thrower also anticipates that many people will use the Bump Network to notify motorists that they have a broken signal light or to report erratic drivers. Users can notify motorists that their parking meter has expired, their car alarm is sounding, or they left their headlights on. Bump.com also offers a way of helping people put together commuter car pools.

Of course, Bump.com also offers opportunities to abuse other motorists, although Thrower says the network has a “profanity filter” in a bid to defuse “road rage.”

The marketing aspect, however, represents the real meat and potatoes of the Bump Network’s potential value. For example, as part of a partnership with the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, Thrower says Bump.com is “putting everyone who goes to the festival in a database.” He sees similar marketing opportunities for reaching everyone who attends a football game and other sporting events, and in offering discounts for merchandise, restaurants, and other goods and services.

By taking the license plate data for every vehicle that attends a NASCAR race, for example, Thrower says the Bump Network provides a way to deliver targeted messages to consumers attending the event.

As the remaining days to SXSW tick away, Thrower says he’s “not looking to hit it out of the park” at the interactive conference in Texas. After that, he says, “It’s literally nose down and working to launch our product. It should be pretty fun.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • Ian

    I hope it has a road rage feature.

  • Jonathan

    Wow, I can’t wait to send and receive messages from random people and companies that see me on the road. What a game changer. *yawn*

  • Seth

    Love the idea of getting personalized discounts through Bump based on where I go… especially at sporting events where everything is so expensive

  • Chase

    I actually do look forward to seeing this in action. I’d be more likely to use a coupon sent out using the automated license plate recognition technology than I would be to sign up for Groupon. This might take a few years, but when it arrives and they get the kinks worked out, it will be cool.

  • Jake

    Who would actually take the time to send someone a mean message? I think there are more good people out there who would use this system to help someone, than people who would want to rage.

  • Mr. Lucas Brice

    I look forward to being able to communicate with strangers on the road. I also look forward to the return of the plague, dental surgery without anesthesia, and eating food laced with e-coli bacteria. What a bunch of nonsense.

  • jason

    Amazing idea!

  • Nicole

    This is such a great idea! I have always wanted to be able to communicate with drivers around me, whether it be about their bumper stickers or their driving habits.

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