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June 05, 2023 | Tom Ballard

Techstars | Preventing drivers from falling asleep at the wheel

Helping address distracted driving is something that has been a focus of André Azevedo for nearly a decade. With WingDriver, it starts with the camera on a driver's smartphone.

Have you ever experienced the sensation of falling asleep at the wheel of a car? I certainly have during the many trips that I have made to Nashville, sometimes twice a week during three careers.

Well, if André Azevedo has his way, your smartphone can be the solution you need to alert you when you are about to nod off while driving, endangering not only yourself but those who are sharing the road with you.

His start-up is named WingDriver, and the new venture is a participant in Cohort 2 of the “Techstars Industries of the Future Accelerator. Helping address distracted driving is something that has been a focus of Azevedo for nearly a decade, starting with co-founding and serving as Chief Executive Officer of HealthyRoad from November 2014 until he sold it in late 2019.

“We were profitable, but the acquirer shut us down,” Azevedo explained. So, in April 2021, he resumed his passion for addressing drivers who fall asleep at the wheel under the WingDriver banner.

“The number one cause of accidents is distracted drivers, and the number four cause is fatigue at the wheel,” he explains. That results in about two million crashes worldwide each year that are at least partially human-caused because of distraction and lack of sleep. The result is a staggering $287 billion in losses for insurance companies only in the U.S. and Europe.

WingDriver solves that using artificial intelligence (AI) and the driver’s smartphone to issue alerts so that those behind the wheel stay awake and focused.

“Our vision is to address all drivers,” Azevedo says. “To do so, we are building the best software for your phone. We are not building an app, but a software tool to change the world.”

How does it work?

He explains that the camera, coupled with the AI-powered proprietary software and smartphone sensors, are the keys. The smartphone camera analyzes a driver’s face at 20 frames per second, detecting eye movement and other signs of distraction such as falling asleep. When that occurs, the software immediately alerts the driver.

In addition, the software uses the vehicle’s inertial data and vehicle surroundings gathered from the vehicle’s rear camera and the accelerometer to accurately identify dangerous situations and alert drivers in real time.

Azevedo says the software can be loaded on any iPhone 7 or later smartphone, and there is also a version for Android devices.

His rollout strategy starts with professional drivers through fleet management solution companies. Next up will be ridesharing services followed by individual drivers through their insurance companies where the drivers can empirically prove how careful they are behind the wheel. Within five years, he wants to have the software installed routinely by automotive manufacturers as smart cars get even smarter.

Worried about too much data being available to others? Azevedo has an answer for that concern.

“Our software runs on your phone, not in the Cloud,” he explains. As such, individual drivers can determine how much they are willing to share with others such as their insurance companies.

Why Techstars?

It starts with the partners, particularly the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) but could also include the Tennessee Valley Authority which has a vehicle fleet.

Azevedo sees UTK students as early testers and users of WingDriver’s software development kit. He wants to further advance the technology and hopes to do so with the research expertise residing at UTK and ORNL. Finally, there’s a $2.5 to $3.5 million seed round that Azevedo needs to raise, and Techstars is a key in that regard.

Oh, the resident of Portugal also says there are two more attributes about the community. One is the diversity of microbreweries; the other is how welcoming people in the community have been.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: All of the 10 companies will be pitching at the “Industries of the Future Summit powered by Techstars” scheduled for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 21 at The Mill & Mine, 227 West Depot Avenue, Knoxville. To register, click here.)

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