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Drivemode Offers a Cheap Alternative to CarPlay, Android Auto

The Android app uses the smartphone you already have to replace the system you probably can't afford.

Ina Fried for Re/code

A driver heads down San Francisco’s Market Street in a blue Honda HR-V, flicks on the right-hand turn signal and the dashboard screen switches from a map to a blind-spot camera. A couple minutes later a WhatsApp message comes in and is read aloud.

For those familiar with Android Auto, Apple’s CarPlay or another high-end navigation systems, this experience may sound familiar. The Drivemode system in this car, however, relies not on another screen, but instead makes use of the smartphone that most drivers already have. Built-in systems might be slicker, but Drivemode aims to fill the gap for all the cars on the road today — as well as the millions more that will be sold in the near future — that lack a pricey built-in navigation display.


Sitting in the back seat of the company’s concept car, CEO Yo Koga said the idea for Drivemode came to him after he moved from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2013 and bought a Toyota Prius with a $2,000 in-car navigation system. He found his smartphone was still more powerful and had the content he wanted.

“I felt like I just wasted the $2,000,” Koga said. At the same time, he felt his smartphone was not optimized for in-car use and was dangerous to operate while driving.

The app part of Drivemode exists today as a free download for any modern Android phone; it already has more than 400,000 downloads. Users can buy an inexpensive car mount for their phone and have a system with as much — and sometimes more — capability as the typical built-in system.

With the Honda concept car shown off Wednesday, Drivemode took things a step further, imagining how the system could work by integrating with the car more tightly, using connections to steering wheel buttons as well as backup and blind-spot cameras to turn an off-the-shelf Nexus 6 into quite the in-car infotainment system.

Even without such integration, the app is able to link via bluetooth or cable to a sound system and handle most requests either by voice or the tap of a large button designed for in-car use.

Drivemode showed an early version of what integration might look like at a Honda event last year. This year’s version of the demo offered a far more polished look, along with the camera integrations.

Now, the nine-person company is looking for more money to turn its dream into a reality. It raised a $2 million seed round in 2014, with investment from a Japanese venture capital firm, but needs more if it is to expand beyond a basic app and into a full-fledged in-car service. Ideas include offering location-based deals, roadside assistance and help finding parking spots.

Even if its idea is a good one, Drivemode faces an uphill battle as a tiny startup trying to work in an industry dominated by slow-moving but well-heeled giants.

“There is a lot of interest from a lot of folks,” Koga said, but all the inbound attention has overwhelmed the tiny team. “We just can’t respond.”

Carmakers could also integrate Drivemode as a low-cost option for their more inexpensive cars, where drivers are unlikely to fork over for a pricey navigation system. Koga said there are discussions taking place, but the only public effort is the concept car built in collaboration with Panasonic and Honda’s Silicon Valley research lab.

Drivemode would like to expand globally, with the lack of in-car navigation systems more pronounced outside the U.S., in places like India, where there are lots of cars and plenty of traffic. And the company would like to go beyond Android to iOS, though it may face more limits on what it can do based on Apple’s tighter control of the operating system.

“We really did identify this as a global need,” says co-founder HK Ueda, a former Panasonic automotive electronics engineer who also worked at Tesla Motors while getting his Harvard MBA.

Here’s a video of Drivemode in action in last year’s concept car. The interface is different now, but the movie gives a feel for the idea in action.

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