GreenRoad: Maxing Out MPG With Real-time Feedback

Think of it as a friendly backseat driver with a remarkable mind for calculating risk and a keen ability to cut your fuel use and emissions. That’s kind of how 7-year-old startup GreenRoad Technologies’ tool works for improving driver behavior through real-time feedback.

GreenRoad’s system uses sensors, an accelerometor, GPS and customized algorithms to calculate the relative risk of different driving maneuvers, then communicates that to the driver by illuminating either a red, yellow or green light. Installed mainly on commercial fleet vehicles (80 fleets so far), the device can have its algorithm customized according to a customer’s priorities, and it communicates information via cellular networks to GreenRoad’s data center. “The brains are in the vehicle,” GreenRoad marketing chief Eric Weiss told me this week, so even in areas without cellular coverage, drivers “always get real-time feedback.”

Weiss commented that the “preoccupation” with banning texting while driving (an idea that’s gaining momentum in certain states and among U.S. policymakers), and the “legislative approach of cordoning off all the things you can’t do…is not effective for converting wrong to right.”

It also obscures a larger opportunity, he said, to transform driving habits using technology, or more specifically: real-time feedback for drivers (both positive and negative), constant data gathering and an online display showing potential savings and areas for improvement — similar to the energy management tools rolling out that monitor homeowners’ real-time use of electricity, natural gas and water, and present it in web-based portals and in-home displays.

Based in Redwood Shores, Calif., with offices in the U.S., UK and Israel, Greenroad is not alone in trying to seize that opportunity. A number of smartphone apps and after-market vehicle retrofits have emerged in an effort to meet demand for the real-time and cumulative data about fuel efficiency that hypermilers have come to love in the Toyota Prius display.

And more automakers are starting build these tools right into the vehicle. Ford (s F), for example, has developed an instrument cluster that, as Grist put it recently, tells “the driver (nicely) whether to ditch the lead foot or keep the good times rollin’.”

For GreenRoad, backed by Virgin Green Fund and Benchmark Capital, among others, one of its main selling points to fleet operators is that the real-time risk assessments of different driving maneuvers help to improve safety, reduce wear and tear on vehicles and slash the number of accidents. But Weiss said that the company’s system has been installed in “two of the country’s largest truck fleets, primarily because of fuel saving.”

We’d like to see bigger cuts in fuel consumption than the 10 percent noted on GreenRoad’s web site, and the up to 15 percent that Weiss said the system can deliver (depending on the route, vehicle and driver). But the system represents one tool that’s relatively easy to implement and, in combination with other technologies, could help to reduce emissions from the transportation sector — the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country since 1990, and also one of the largest.