Navdy Aims to Keep Phone Users’ Eyes on the Road

8/5/14Follow @xconomy

The idea behind Navdy, a heads-up device that sits on car dashboards and allows drivers to answer calls and get navigation help without ever touching their phones, came about the obvious way.

“It really started with one too many ‘oh shit’ moments in the car,” says company CEO Doug Simpson. “Fumbling around with my phone and being way too temped to slide to unlock the phone and look at the text, that was really the start.”

Across the country, 44 states have passed at least some sort of hands-free law to try to curtail texting and distracted driving. But drivers continue to text and drive, and some studies have found that hands-free devices aren’t any less distracting. A recent study by Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute found that drivers who take their eyes off the road are three times as likely to get in an accident.

Though driving with no distractions at all would likely be the best thing, chances are most drivers are talking to a friend, listening to the radio, or answering their calls. To Simpson, getting drivers to keep their eyes on the road is a safer and better solution than the status quo.

San Francisco-based Navdy’s heads-up display, which goes on presale today, has a transparent screen that makes it appear as though driving directions, texts, and other information are projected about two yards in front of a driver’s windshield. When drivers get a call, they can use hand gestures—a swipe to the left or right in the air in front of the device—to accept or decline. Instead of typing, they can text with audio instructions.

Those who would rather avoid texting altogether can simply disable it; the device, which is about the size of a Discman, also has parental controls.

The device connects to iOS and Android phones via Bluetooth, and has its own apps that streamline the information drivers see. For example, instead of seeing an entire chat history, like on a phone screen, drivers would see a single text and who it’s from, or just the next turn, as opposed to an entire map. “We’re trying to keep it very simple,” Simpson says. “Just the information that you need, directly in your field of vision at all times.”

Though the company had to create its own apps, the hardest part about building Navdy wasn’t creating the software. When Simpson first came up with the idea, he realized the optics of heads-up displays were “way over my head,” he says. “It’s really complicated science.” Luckily, the Hewlett Packard alumnus and founder of two startups found help in the form of co-founder Karl Guttag, a longtime Texas Instruments employee who has been named as inventor or co-inventor on more than 146 patents and had spent the previous 16 years working on displays.

Together, Simpson and Guttag worked to solve the biggest problems of existing heads-up displays that some car manufacturers had begun to build into cars. For one, they took up a lot of space. For another, they cost a few thousand dollars. And they had to be 30 times brighter than an iPhone to avoid being washed out by sunlight. They bootstrapped the company and focused all their energy on making a real working display before they even started fundraising. “We wanted to first convince ourselves that it was actually achievable before we convinced anybody else,” Simpson says.

Now the company, which occupies Twitter’s first office on Shotwell St. in the Mission, has 12 full-time employees, and has applied to patent the technology behind its device.

Though the idea of a heads-up device has been around for a while—military and commercial pilots have had heads-up displays on their windshields for years, and some car manufacturers have offered in-car devices as an option for the last couple—Simpson says they don’t have a lot of competition. In the U.S., Garmin offers a $179 heads-up display, but it doesn’t project and only provides navigational information. “It’s almost like if you stuck your phone on your dashboard,” Simpson says. In Europe and Asia, Pioneer offers a $700 device that hangs on the driver’s sun visor, but it makes it pretty hard to use the visor. Navdy is also cheaper; people who preorder within the next 30 days will pay $299 for the device, while everyone else will pay $499. The company expects the device to ship in early 2015.

Some car manufacturers do offer heads-up displays as an option—they’re available in the Mini-Cooper, for example, but Simpson isn’t really worried about them cutting into Navdy’s market. There are 253 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads in 2014, and their average age is 11.4 years. New cars make up a very small percentage, and the number of manufacturers that offer the devices in their cars is quite small. “If every automotive OEM [original equipment manufacturer] included a heads-up display in every new car, it would still take 17 years to replace every car,” Simpson says. The upgrade also costs a couple thousand dollars, as opposed to a few hundred.

Plus, Simpson sees car manufacturers as natural partners for the company down the road. “Over time, as we build an ecosystem of apps and work with third-party app developers, then it becomes a natural progression to start working with automotive companies,” he says.

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