There are many wonderful ways to make the evening news. Not among them: Plowing into another car on the freeway because it hit the brakes and you didn’t notice in time. Increasingly common collision warning systems fight back, but only for folks who can afford new cars.
Until now. Starting this week, anybody with a smartphone can have their own automated warning system—for free.
Israeli startup Nexar has released the newest capabilities for its mobile app, which watches the road ahead and predicts when a crash is likely. It makes use of your phone’s camera, accelerometer, and gyroscope, noting when you pump the brakes, where you are in space, and whether other vehicles are nearby. It relies on machine learning to interpret that data, so the more experience the app gets on the road, the better it becomes at spotting problems and warning drivers.
Meaning, yes: It constantly collects data on your life in the car, sending it back to the mothership (OK, data center) in Israel via cellular networks.
The New V2V
When Nexar launched its app this spring, the idea was simple: use your smartphone as a dashcam to capture and save encounters on the road. The app would detect things like hard braking events and start recording, so it gradually learned what sorts of conditions lead to crashes. The tech has already helped resolve over 200 insurance claims, the company says. But the startup has always had bigger aspirations—namely, to collect enough data to create a comprehensive network of every vehicle on the road.
“We’re about trying to build a new, scalable and also democratic mechanism to prevent collisions,” says Eran Shir, Nexar’s founder and CEO. Vehicle crashes kill some 33,000 people in the US every year, and more than 1.25 million worldwide.
The company has made its collision warning system available everywhere, but it holds special hope for New York City and San Francisco. This week, Nexar also turned on its network in those cities, so cars carrying the app will talk not just with the data center, but with each other.
Shir says a region where just four percent of vehicles use the Nexar app will have enough “eyes” on the street to warn drivers about many forward crashes before they happen. Say you’re running the app, blow a tire, and stop in middle of the road. Your phone tells the network something has gone wrong. If the lady three cars back is a Nexar user, she’ll get a warning that a hard stop is coming up—seconds before she encounters the problem.
Fixing Up Your Ride
This is the promise of vehicle-to-vehicle technology: connecting vehicles so they behave more like a school of fish than a collection of selfish, berserk rhinos. The Department of Transportation has long championed its own V2V solution, a Dedicated Short Range Communications system that works through short- or medium-range wireless channels.
That kind of system has a few advantages, says Stephen F. Smith, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics researcher who works on intelligent transportation systems. It can talk to infrastructure like traffic signals, for example, and provide an open source playground for American industry. Problem is, it requires building new capabilities into every car. While automakers are starting to make that happen, market penetration will take a long time.
Nexar’s network is ready to go. “You can certainly make the argument that [Nexar users] will be the first on the block to be connected in that way,” Smith says.
Nothing’s Really Free
Crash prevention for the average Joe iPhone is exciting, especially since Nexar’s giving it away for free.
Except, it’s not really free. Nexar users don’t hand over cash, but they do agree to share their data with the startup, which will use millions of hours’ worth of footage to refine its technology—or do similar work for other companies. Like many free apps, Nexar makes its money selling your (anonymized) data. In this case, automakers trying to develop their own automated tech, and seeking to account for all the wild things that can happen in the real world, will find Nexar’s piles of info mighty tasty.
Users get other benefits. Thanks to the always-rolling camera, Nexar captures crash incidents and automatically creates accident reports, which can be used to resolve insurance claims. (The app can also trigger your phone’s inward-facing camera and built-in microphone—something ride-hail drivers should like.) Already, insurance companies have teamed up with the startup to reward drivers for good behavior.
One day soon, Shir says, the company will provide drivers with tips—stop taking right turns so hard, or back off that truck in front of you. Once it finds a sensitive way to do it, Nexar plans to roll out a “driving score” for anyone on the road, tracking driver behavior through license plate numbers and warning users when a particularly rude car is nearby.
OK, it’s a little Minority Report-y. But it appears even the government is on board—Nexar says it’s met with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and agreed to share some data with the government (though NHTSA says there’s no formal agreement).
If Nexar is right, the future is safer—as long as you’re willing to share yourself with the companies that are making it that way.
Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.