Startup of the Week: Diagnostic Driving for Safer Roads

A CHOP spin-out wants to rate and improve your driving and save employers millions.

Startup of the Week is a weekly feature that showcases innovation and the inner workings of startups across the Philadelphia region. 

The economic burden of motor vehicle crashes is surprisingly large for Philadelphia employers. Between medical bills, work loss, and fatalities, companies in the region spend about $3.5 million a day on accident-related expenses. In 2015 alone, crashes cost Pennsylvania employers about $1.5 billion for the year.

That’s a huge, costly problem that a scientist out of CHOP wants to tackle. And why would a pediatric scientist care about motor vehicle accidents? Because they’re the number-one cause of death and injury for teenagers, and nearly one in five teens gets into a police-reported crash within one year of getting their driver’s license.

As a data scientist with CHOP’s Center for Injury Research and Prevention, Venk Kandadai and his colleagues spent years pumping out road traffic safety research and concluded that driver exams do very little to determine just how safe or unsafe a particular driver is. And just like that, the startup Diagnostic Driving was born.

The new company, which received a seed investment from CHOP, wants fewer dangerous drivers on the road. Its value proposition to employers, said Kandadai, Diagnostic Driving’s CEO, is that it can reliably and rapidly identify dangerous drivers and coach them to be safer on the road.

The startup has built driving simulation software (with bring-your-own steering wheels and pedals) that can be used on a computer. The software can quantify a person’s risk on the road — how likely they are to crash — and differentiate users from others, a marker that says whether someone is a low-risk, medium-risk, or high-risk driver. The software has been iterated to the point where it can detect behaviors as minute as where someone’s eyes are focused during the test, how they scan the virtual scene, when and how they release the throttle, or how forcefully they turn the vehicle when they come upon a bend.

While anyone can use Diagnostic Driving’s software to improve their driving skills, the company is currently targeting large companies that employ professional drivers and are self-insured.

“No one is thinking about driving like this,” said Kandadai. Right now, large employers like Merck, Aramark, PECO and even UPenn (a Diagnostic Driving client) can spend millions on motor vehicle accidents each year. When hiring drivers, employers like these have traditionally relied on motor vehicle records and background checks to make decisions. But what can a five-year-old speeding infraction tell you about who that driver is today? Not much, said Kandadai. And in Philadelphia, the cops don’t have to show up to the scene of an accident if no injury has been reported.

According to Kandadai, other driving simulators on the market are unreliable because they don’t allow users to practice and improve within them. Telematics, the sensory systems that can detect driver behavior, fail us in accident prevention because they address driver safety retroactively, well after drivers are on the road.

“Because we are scientists studying this, we know how people crash,” said Kanadadai. The company’s added service is to help drivers self-identify their errors through the coaching software. After taking the diagnostic assessment, drivers are prescribed an online coaching course that goes hand in hand with additional simulations that must be completed. “Employers told us ‘don’t tell us who our bad drivers are if you can’t help us do anything about it,’” Kandadai said.

The coaching system, based on proven motivation enhancement therapy used to treat people with alcoholism, for example, seeks to motivate drivers to improve their behavior, hold them accountable for their faults, and incentivize them for making changes.

In the fall of 2015, Kandadai went through the DreamIt Ventures accelerator program, and by January 2016, the company entered a pilot round with Merck, the local pharmaceutical giant with drivers in more than 140 countries. Months later, Kandadai closed a funding round with CHOP and decided to bootstrap the company with those funds alone. Now, the company and its small but impressive team — they’ve got Monetate’s second-ever employee Luke Walker as their CTO, Dr. Flaura K. Winston of CHOP as a cofounder and advisor, and game developer Camden Segal as a senior engineer — is about to close a major deal with an undisclosed state DMV. The state partner wants to include Diagnostic Driving’s simulated assessment software into its licensing workflow, mandating that applicants use the tool before they even take an on-road licensing exam.

“I hate driving,” said Kandadai who describes himself as a nervous, off-kilter driver. His zest for championing safety on the road is also partly personal. His mother and aunt were ravaged by an accident with an 18-wheeler that left them severely disabled for some time when he was a child. PTSD still keeps his mom from driving at night, and she never drives alone.

Looking forward, Kandadai said he’s not apprehensive about the elephant in the room: autonomous cars. In fact, he welcomes them graciously. He sees a big opportunity to use the swaths of data he’s collecting to train and assess the algorithms of vehicle autonomy systems.

“The horizon is about 20 years for fully autonomous vehicles,” he said. “Right now, we’ve got a lot of work to do on our roads.”

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