Thinking Tech

New smartphone innovations may improve driving smarts

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Here's a round-up of recent technologies that can make your smartphone more helpful than the passenger riding shotgun.

Technology that encourages drivers to use their cell phones more may sound like a hazardous idea. But a few innovative companies have started to demonstrate that smartphones can actually make life on the road easier, safer and more efficient. Here are four examples of apps that have the potential to revolutionize the driving experience.

Zoomsafer

For obvious reasons, texting or talking on the phone while driving is against the law in many states. Statistics show that 18 percent of the fatalities in distraction-related crashes involved the use of cell phones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

ZoomSafer is an app that can enforce safer driving habits by automatically disabling your cell phone whenever you're driving. The software's integrated GPS tracking system can sense when you're behind the wheel by monitoring how fast you're moving and unlocks your phone when it detects that you've stopped the car.

The software is geared toward companies who employ drivers and seek to ensure safety and reduce liability costs. ZoomSafer even has a version of the product for parents called TeenSafer, which sends can withhold text and email notifications until the driver is safely off the road or reply with an automated response that reads something like "Matt received your text but is driving and focused on the road."

The company has just announced that it had received $1.1 million in financing from White Birch Capital and SugarOak Holdings.

GasBuddy

It'll probably take a while for alternative fuel vehicles to become a viable option for most drivers. So in the meantime, you can download a free app that can at least ease the hurt of rising gas prices.

GasBuddy, a mobile spin-off from the popular web site, provides users with a comprehensive real-time listing of gas prices at nearby stations. The locations can be sorted by price or distance, and includes an interactive map to help drivers get to their desired refueling spot.

The app has been out for a while and not surprisingly has become one of the top downloads at the Apple App store (currently #3 most popular as of this writing).

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Google Maps

Hot off Google's mobile products blog is an announcement that the Google maps app now has an added feature that uses real-time traffic data to calculate the quickest route to any desired destination. It's anyone's guess where Google is getting the data to generate the best possible time-efficient and gas-saving routes, although there some clues which indicate that the information may be coming from other users of the Google mobile app.

In a blog post from 2009, Product Manager Dave Barth wrote that the app's crowd sourcing functionality "sends anonymous bits of data back to Google describing how fast you're moving. When we combine your speed with the speed of other phones on the road, across thousands of phones moving around a city at any given time, we can get a pretty good picture of live traffic conditions."

Undoubtedly the feature will be put to the test in coming days and if it proves to be as helpful as it claims, it may be well on its way toward displacing onboard GPS navigators.


Parker

Besides traffic jams, having to routinely hunt around for a parking spot is another majorly annoying aspect of living in a congested city.

To spare people from having to suffer through the ordeal, San Francisco-based startup Streetline Networks has developed and put into place a technology to help drivers locate available parking spots. Recently, the company has collaborated with business contractors in Los Angeles to install tiny sensors throughout the city that can detect whether a parking spot is occupied or not. This data is recorded, mapped out and made available in real-time through Parker, a paid app available at the Apple app store and coming soon to Android.

So far, sensors have been installed in 3,000 parking locations in the Los Angeles area. The company plans to install a network in parts of Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City.

Last year, IBM honored Streetline Networks with its 2010  "Global Entrepreneur of the year" award.

Photo: Stock.Xchng

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure