Facebook for the Road? Call, E-Mail Other Drivers With New Social Network

PHOTO The service not only lets drivers send and receive e-mails, text and voice messages, it offers drivers discounts based on their location.
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Have you ever wanted to call another driver to complain about cutting you off? Or to tell him that his brake lights aren't working? Or even to ask him out on a date?

Now you can.

Through a new start-up called Bump.com, drivers across the country can use their license plates to connect with each other via e-mails, text and voice messages, and even access discounts to local stores based on the locations where they're driving.

"It's kind of like a Groupon and a Foursquare, meets AAA and LoJack -- all of which you can't turn off," said Mitch Thrower, Bump.com's San Diego, Calif.-based founder and CEO.

The company is powered by a program that scans and automatically recognizes license plate numbers in pictures taken by security cameras on the road. It then matches up those numbers with e-mail accounts, mobile phones and location systems to let people communicate.

Bump Scans Security Camera Images for License Plate Info

For two years, Bump.com has been in "stealth" mode, Thrower said, building up the technology behind the company and assigning e-mail addresses and voicemail boxes to license plates across the country.

At the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin today, the company officially launched, on an open invitation basis.

To join, you can register on the company's website for an invitation to "claim your plate." After receiving the invitation, users can go to Bump.com to verify car ownership and set up a profile.

But even if you don't want to be a part of a social network for the streets, Bump will capture images of your license plate and assign it an identity. Other drivers will be able to send messages to your car, but you only receive those text and voice messages if you sign up for the network and register yourself as the license plate owner.

"Your license plate is basically a public document, a public record, and it ties back to a communication need," Thrower said. "Everyone's thought, at some point, 'Hey, I'd like to talk to this person. I'd like to send this person a message.'"

Get Points, Discounts Based on Your Location

In every other realm of society, there's been a push for transparency and accountability, Thrower said. But despite the fact that the average driver spends about five years of his life in a car and about 70 years in a relationship with a vehicle, Thrower said, anonymity still reigns supreme on the road.

Bump.com not only lets drivers communicate -- a chance to exchange both gripes and Good Samaritan messages -- it can also let parents track their children and companies and taxi companies monitor their fleets.

Thrower is also working with towing companies on a system that would alert drivers when their cars are towed. Instead of calling the police department to track down your towed car, the towing company would just send you an e-mail or voicemail, he said.

But messaging capabilities are just one piece of the puzzle, Thrower said. Bump.com will also offer drivers a AAA-type membership program that gives drivers discounts and promotions based on their locations for a $49 annual fee.

For example, at the upcoming Coachella Music Festival in California, Bump.com will give attendees discounts on iTunes downloads of songs played at the festival, if the service spots their license plates.

Eventually, members could receive discounts from nearby stores as the service spots them driving by, as well as roadside assistance.

Recognizing that distracted driving is an increasing concern, Thrower said, Bump.com disables texting while the car is moving and sends all messages straight to voicemail to keep drivers focused on the road.

While some might be alarmed that a single company is amassing so much information about people's location and driving habits, Thrower emphasized that the company automatically defaults to the most private settings, won't turn over information to insurance companies and filters out obscenity-laced road rage messages. But in cases of child abductions and other public safety situations, he said, Bump.com technology can help law enforcement track down criminals.

"The Good Samaritan piece is a big one for us," Thrower said. "We want to make the roads safer."

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