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RoadAhead: Savior of the long-distance driver?

New iPhone app finds the services you want, tells you where to exit to get them, and keeps you moving forward.

RoadAhead shows you the services you're interested in at the exits ahead of you. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

You're driving to Grandma's house. You've got 200 miles to go. In the car with you: a fatigued spouse, two kids at each other's throats, and a slobbering Labrador Retriever with a full bladder. You're hungry, the gas tank is nearly empty, and you want to get off the road for dinner. Where do you stop?

Traditional roadside placards and billboards might tell you what's next on your route. Some GPS units and apps will show you what's beyond that as well. But nothing I've seen yet is as dialed in to the road-tripper's dilemma as a new app launching today: RoadAhead.

RoadAhead is a smartphone app (iPhone only so far: iTunes link) that can tell you which exit to take when you're on the move and looking for a certain combination of services. Say you want a sit-down dinner, gas, and a playground. You can select just that combination, and the app will show you which of those services are at each exit ahead of you. It will rank services based on how well they fit in with your direction of travel--if possible, it won't route you across a freeway or far off the beaten path.

Most importantly, it won't ever show you attractions or services that are behind you. Because we don't double back, kids. If you wanted to go to Burger King, you should have told me 30 miles ago.

RoadAhead founder Jeffrey Beir (formerly of North Bridge Venture Partners, Xerox, Lotus, and his own start-up, eRoom) tells me the technical challenge to building this app was not trivial. A proprietary database takes available map and business data and enables the app to route based on direction of travel. "It's a tough algorithm," he says.

The app will route you or call a destination Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

The interface is tuned in to the needs of the highway driver. The next exit on the freeway is always on the top, with the services in the categories you want listed. You can click through to call a business or get a Google Map route to it. For safety's sake it's better for a passenger to operate the service while on the move, but the app is clean and simple and attuned to the needs of the driver nonetheless.

It's a good app, and I look forward to giving it a workout on my next road trip. But what I really like about this project is its business potential. There is a great opportunity to make money from location-based ads and coupons. A future version of the app will pull coupon data from various feeds. Beyond that, RoadAhead could launch its own network for roadside business owners or franchise operators who want to grab people off the highway. (User reviews may come in future versions, too.)

Due to its (reportedly) unique technology, solid business potential, and real-world utility, I'd say this fledgling company won't last a year as a standalone business. It'll get snapped up. Its suitors could come from the navigation world (Garmin), search (Google), the user reviews world (Yelp), or the location-based deal business (Foursquare). RoadAhead has many good exits.