Aha Mobile: the interactive traffic app that won't kill you

Finally, someone has come out with a useful iPhone traffic application that won’t overly distract you while on the road.

Aha Mobile, an app that just launched last night, offers you a dead-simple dashboard with traffic congestion and incident information without you having to search for it. It’s possibly the safest traffic iPhone app so far, and I’m going to start using it right away. It offers community features, too: Users can use their voice to relay information about traffic, and they can leave more frivolous “shouts” too, such as about their mood or even sing karaoke. These frivolous elements are in a separate part of the app, which is nice because it doesn’t muddy the experience for those not interested in such off-topic shouts.

I don’t care who you are, if you focus on an application by texting or even by speaking with your voice for too long, it’s going to happen: You’re going to get into a wreck. And if you’ve tried Google Maps on the iPhone, you’ll know it’s a useful service but that it sometimes requires concentration to type in things like your destination, or to search for lists of interesting places nearby, such as restaurants. It’s better to use before you drive.

Aha Mobile was built from the beginning with driver safety in mind. Basically, it jettisons the idea of giving you maps or navigation direction — it only giving you close-up route information when you really need it.

At any given time, it only gives you three wide bands of information on your screen — the idea being that you don’t have to think too hard to look at these three bands, or to touch them. For example, if you’re in Cupertino, Calif., and driving to San Jose, one of the bands might display information about the chunk of road showing the quickest route between those two places (see image at left). It gives you the time it currently takes to drive the route, and lets you know whether its badly congested (red), congested (orange), almost entirely clear (yellow) or completely clear (green). If you tap on the band, you get alerts about traffic incidents on this road. The other two bands, meanwhile, might show alternative routes. You select your destination before you drive, and then Aha updates the information about traffic conditions dynamically as you drive.

It also provides a microphone button at the bottom of the display, which you can hit once to record an audio message if you want to input information for other drivers. You hit the button again to send the message. Other drivers can flick through those messages, starting with the ones geographically closest to them.

Aha also carries a number of other useful features, most of which can be customized. For example, you can let it alert you to nearby things you need — like a cup of coffee or restaurant (supplied through integration with Yelp) or a restroom (Sit or Squat). To customize the coffee feature, you can have Aha show only Peets coffee houses but no Starbucks.

The app is free, in part because its costs are so low. It has bartered for most of its information. It gets traffic flow and incident information from providers like Inrix and Clearchannel, for example, but supplies those providers with the inputs from its own users in return. The low-cost approach reflects the experience chief executive Robert Acker had at his prior start-up, Dash Navigation. That company sought to build a complex navigation device and software package, but it sucked up more than $70 million and recently gave up making the device.

It is focused on building the number of its users. Next year, it plans to find ways to monetize the application, perhaps through advertising. It has launched the service in California for now, but will launch in other cities and states over the ensuing weeks. Aha will also limit its offering to the iPhone app for now, and then next year start to diversify to other phone platforms.

Venture capital firm Venrock invested $3 million into the company, announced in May.

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