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Virtual Vehicle Company: Unlocking Green Car Data With Cell Phones

Virtual Vehicle Company, a startup that was one of the 100 finalists showing their technologies at the California Cleantech Open conference on Thursday, is the first company I’ve seen that truly uses the latest cell phone innovations to unlock useful data about greener transportation. Developed at UC Berkeley, VEVCo (as the company calls itself) has developed a mobile application for smart phones that can track a user’s driving behavior using inputs like the embedded GPS and largely without the driver having to manually input any information.

Co-founder Laura Schewel told me at the event it was only when Google (s GOOG) and Apple (s AAPL) launched their mobile operating systems that VEVCo was able to make an app that was inexpensive and could pull driver information unobtrusively. By using the GPS chip, the app can tell when the driver has started driving, when they stop, how fast or slow they drive, their daily average range, and the common length of the trips they take, among other things. While Schewel said she’s seen other companies spend millions of dollars trying to get that type of driving data, VEVCo’s app cost in the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars range to build.

That type of driving information, repackaged in various ways, could also be very valuable to a variety of industries from automakers, auto dealers and auto insurance companies to advertisers and web firms. The first market that VEVCo is targeting will be automotive marketing, and VEVCo has developed the Virtual Test Drive app and website that uses driving information to educate and recommend what type of green car a consumer should (or could) buy or lease, with recommendations ranging from a plug-in hybrid or all-electric vehicle, to a flex-fuel or cleaner diesel car.

Schewel explained to me that the most important decision a consumer can make is when they decide to buy or lease a green car, and the app can give the driver an indication of what kind of car would have the best fit in terms of range, efficiency, cost and mileage. Compared to gas cars, plug-in hybrids, mild hybrids (that just use the battery for assist), and all electric cars will offer different options to different types of drivers. ‘”It’s confusing,” said Schewel. “They need help figuring out what’s best for them.”

The auto marketing industry was a $20 billion market in the U.S. in 2008 and 75 percent of auto shoppers in the U.S. research on the web before going to a dealership, according to VEVCo.

The startup is launching the beta version of the virtual test drive app in August and is currently seeking beta testers with iPhones to try it out (email beta AT to get involved). The company expects the first commercial version of the app to be out in November. Currently the company is looking to raise more seed funding and expand its team to meet those goals.

The virtual test drive app is just one market. Picture the underlying data-gathering app as a platform that could be used to develop tools around efficient driving methods for fleets (like what Green Road does, but without the capital costs of the hardware and sensors in the car) and help companies cut down on fuel costs. Other markets could be car insurance companies that want to use driving habits to offer different rates or deals (that could be where privacy considerations will be crucial), advertisers that want to use your driving patterns to offer location-based deals, or traffic control and tolling systems that want to use driving data to steamline their services.

Schewel tells me she expects the next generation of cars to be able to connect with the smartphone app directly (via a physical holster or bluetooth), which would allow the apps to tap into even more detailed mileage and driving data (Ford, for example, has announced plans for letting drivers control smartphone apps through its Sync interface next year). VEVCo says the market for “smart transportation” data will exceed $50 billion by 2015.

For now, VEVCo is new and small. The company was the grand prize winner of the University of California’s Big Ideas Competition, Schewel is a National Science Foundation Fellow at the UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group and VEVCo counts Berkeley Professor Dan Kammen as a founding team member.

For more research on where computing meets electric vehicles check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Why Google Android’s Electric Vehicle Deal with GM Matters

The App Developer’s Guide to Working With Ford Sync

Report: IT Opportunities for Electric Vehicle Management

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