DriverSide: World's least sexy (but useful) car site

Service for car owners, not buyers, leaves beta and gets new features.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

A year ago, I covered DriverSide, then in beta, a site designed to help people own cars--not buy new ones or fetishize the ones they can't afford. Since then, with the crisis in the U.S. economy, the automobile market has changed dramatically, making the boring utility of DriverSide likely even more attractive than it was when it launched.

The site is coming out of beta now and it has a few new features designed for people who don't feel their cars are disposable items. "Car awareness is different today," founder Trevor Traina says. He quotes a statistic: 82 percent of people now intend to keep their cars longer than they did before the recession hit. So DriverSide's mission--"teaching people to maintain and own cars"--seems to be right for the time.

DriverSide isn't quite the WebMD of car sites, but its diagnostic tool does give you a sense of what's likely wrong with your car. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

As the site leaves beta, it's getting a few new features. There's a diagnostic utility: you answer a series of questions and it will give you a diagnosis as well as a list of repair shops nearby, with reviews from DriverSide users (integration with Yelp's reviews may come in the future). As before, you can get a price estimate on DriverSide if you know exactly what work you need.

Sadly, the feature I want--the ability to just hold an iPhone up to a car making a strange noise to get a diagnosis--has yet to be developed. However, I did recommend that Traina call the team over audio recognition company Melodis, so maybe we'll get that eventually.

DriverSide also now employs its own panel of mechanics to answer questions from users. I found this feature more useful than the rather broad diagnostic utility, since in the questions I read, the mechanics seemed not only to know cars but know what particular repairs should cost. It's nice to take a car into a shop with that information.

DriverSide's mechanics answer user questions. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

DriverSide makes money from referrals and leads (to repair shops and auto parts stores) as well as from advertising. The site will also contract with repair chains to give them co-branded versions of the site. This could be a good way for dealers and shops to stay engaged with their customers, and that's important for the auto dealers. As new car sales slow, it's going to be their repair arms that keep them in business.

The biggest challenge for DriverSide is that it's just not very sexy, nor is it a site that most users will visit frequently. People who have used the site in the past (I'm one), and who could take advantage of it when they have an issue with their car may simply forget it's there when it could be of the most help to them.

Some clever features, like the service's new specific Twitter feeds for ownership news related to the top 50 cars its users own, could help users to remember the site when they need it. And if Traina can keep DriverSide front of mind when it's needed, it could capture enough of what Traina says is the $34 billion annual "ownership" market for the car industry--for service, parts, insurance, and so on. It's a good model for the times.