In the grief that followed, Srinivasan had a persistent regret in his mind. "Why couldn't there be a little warning sign ahead," he said. "He might still be here."
The thought has stayed with him since the 2008 accident, and now he's doing something about it. Srinivasan, a 33-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has designed an app that culls information from police records and other sources and alerts drivers to hazardous spots along their routes. His company, Signal Labs, touts the app as a traffic sign for the 21st century.
In a world where cameras, radars, and other sensors provide astonishing amounts of real-time data to drivers, the app is potentially valuable because it adds situational context. For example, motorists might learn whether an intersection they're approaching is prone to accidents or whether they're entering an area where others often brake hard.
The app is potentially valuable because it adds situational context.
The technology is gaining traction from users curious about its potential. Individual Uber and Lyft drivers have tested it in the Northern California area, and last month, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority started a pilot program with San Francisco-based Signal Labs that will allow the agency to evaluate how the app improves traffic safety and helps in building a next-generation transportation infrastructure. Over a 45-day period, the agency plans to outfit one of its vehicles with the app, test its helpfulness and provide feedback at the end of July.
"We are encouraged by emerging, cutting-edge technology that is helping to make transit systems all over the world safer, more attractive and a more viable option to solo driving," a VTA spokesperson said.
In its current form, the app contains information only for California roads and is geared toward commercial fleet vendors. But Srinivasan foresees its use expanding to everyday drivers in other areas, and interested consumers can pre-order it on the Signal Labs website and will be notified when it's available in their area. One day, it could expand beyond the US and be valuable in underdeveloped countries where traffic infrastructure lacks investment and deaths run high. Approximately 1.24 million people were killed in traffic accidents in 2013, the latest year for which data is available, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO regards traffic deaths as a "neglected epidemic." Srinivasan agrees.
"You look at the causes of death that are human-made, and only one is a major problem, and it's crazy to me that no one else seems to care," he said.
Smartphones are a cause of driver distraction right now, but with the app, they are potentially turned from a safety liability into a safety benefit. Signal Labs provides a container that allows a user's cell phone to sit mounted on the dashboard. As a motorist drives, various warnings may flash across the screen. In the future, the app could be integrated into a vehicle's onboard telematics unit.
In the future, the app could be integrated into a vehicle's onboard telematics unit.
Behind the scenes, an algorithm is crunching data from multiple geocoded datasets that range from maps of bus stops to intersections with two-way stop signs to bike routes to accident reports. One of the chief challenges in designing the app is determining how much information to give drivers without giving them what industry experts call "alert fatigue." And the proper amount of information might vary greatly for a motorist driving through busy city streets compared to one driving down desolate country roads.
Cobbling the right mix of information together for a driver is "as much of an art as a science," Srinivasan said. "Generally, there are too many false positives and we want to get smarter on it. Even speed-limit warnings on some of these apps – five miles above the limit on a highway is totally different than five over in a school zone, and that's what we bring."
With the arrival of self-driving cars on US roads growing closer every day, it seems an obvious concern the Signal Labs app could have short-lived success before being rendered irrelevant when autonomous vehicles remove most drivers from the safety equation. But Srinivasan sees self-driving vehicles as complementary, not competitive, for providing intelligent safety information.
"We can make an important burst here with safety knowledge," he said. "Self-driving cars, they still require stop signs and and there will always be a mix of cars and pedestrians. Traffic laws aren't going anywhere."