A photo of the Spectrum Tracking App next to an overhead photo of a vehicle driving through a wooded area.

The Spectrum Tracking app allows users to track vehicles and gain diagnostic information. | Screenshot courtesy of Spectrum Tracking

A UofL professor has created a tracking app that gives business owners real-time information about their fleet of vehicles — and allows nervous parents to keep a closer eye on their children’s driving habits.

The Spectrum Tracking app allows vehicle owners to instantly identify a vehicle’s location and monitor data including speed, engine diagnostics and hard stops and starts. The software works together with a small GPS tracker usually installed below a vehicle’s steering column.

The data also gives parents ammunition to remind their children to develop proper driving habits. And it allows the adults to verify that the teens are actually going to a friend’s house to do homework — rather than to hang out at a vape shop on Bardstown Road.

It also enables commercial fleet owners to monitor their vehicles so that they can coordinate them more effectively and inform clients about when work crews will arrive.

A portrait of Peter Lian

Peter Lian

Yongsheng “Peter” Lian told Insider that he conceived of the idea during the solar eclipse in 2017 when his children’s buses were delayed and he couldn’t tell when they would be arriving at home. At the time, his son, Richard, was in middle and his daughter, Helen, in elementary school. He thought that if the buses had a GPS tracker and parents could monitor them on their phones, it would eliminate confusion and abate parents’ worries.

“That’s how I got the idea,” Lian said.

For Lian, the company is a side hustle, as he is the director of UofL’s Computational Thermo-Fluid Laboratory Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Speed School of Engineering. His wife, Lihui, also works at the Speed School, as an assistant professor in industrial engineering. Lian has lived in the U.S. since 1999 and in Louisville since 2009.

Difficult beginnings

While he had a business idea, Lian had no programming experience. After some struggles, he found some collaborators online who handled technical aspects while Lian reached out to manufacturers in China who could provide the hardware. The entrepreneur said he called hundreds of manufacturers and tested many devices to make sure they would work with the software.

Lian also called potential customers, such as local school systems, but only with limited success. A district in Southern Indiana allowed Lian in late 2017 to put two trackers on buses as part of a pilot project, but one of the devices never worked. The system’s transportation director called Lian after a few days and asked him to remove the trackers.

A closeup of the Spectrum Tracking GPS device that plugs into a vehicle.

The Spectrum Tracking device, which users plug into a vehicle, usually underneath the steering column. | Courtesy of Spectrum Tracking

Lian said he and his programmer, a Garmin employee, were crushed. Lian was determined to keep going, but the programmer left soon after, leaving the local entrepreneur to once again find a freelance developer. It also prompted Lian to teach himself how to code. As a former aerospace engineer who had done work for NASA, he had some familiarity with coding.

Lian said he probably contacted about 35 freelancers, and worked with three over the next two years, one working in the app, two on the server side. Lian’s work also included lots of 4 a.m. phone calls to manufacturers in China to get them to send hardware to test its compatibility with the tracking software.

After his disappointing interactions with school systems, Lian in early 2018 identified other potential customers: parents and businesses. At the time, he had the hardware and software for computers, but not yet an app.

In April of that year, he began trying to sell the product on Amazon but ran into problems. His app still was “buggy” he said, and while it had basic functionality, parts of it just weren’t working, including customers’ ability to pay the monthly subscription fee.

Lian said he begged friends and relatives to buy the device and give him good reviews online, but, he admitted, the product at the time really wasn’t ready. The app crashed frequently. It lacked user-friendliness. It only worked on Android phones. Early reviews weren’t good.

It was a learning process, Lian said.

Over the next few months, he and his developers continued working the product. By late summer, it had improved markedly, and reviews improved. Lots of people bought the device over the Christmas holidays. But too many people still were returning it in January and February. Lian and the developers kept improving the software.

By March, the team had updated and upgraded the product to such an extent that, Lian said, he felt he could show it to people with confidence. The device now gets four out of five stars on Amazon.

Positive feedback

A side view of a white pickup truck with Louisville Spray Foam Insulation logo

One of the Louisville Spray Foam Insulation vehicles equipped with a Spectrum Tracking device. | Courtesy of Louisville Spray Foam Insulation

Matthew Gilles, the owner of Louisville Spray Foam Insulation, has used the Spectrum Tracking product for about a month and said it had improved his business’ efficiency and ability to provide information to customers.

Gilles said that customer service is critical to getting repeat business, as about two-thirds of his company’s revenue comes from relationships with commercial and residential building companies, with the remainder coming from homeowners who want better insulation or who want the company to insulate a home addition.

The Spectrum Tracking software and app allow Gilles to know instantly where his crews are and how soon customers can expect them to arrive.

The work that Louisville Spray Foam Insulation provides can take hours, and homeowners typically have to take part or all of a day off work, and they don’t like waiting for contractors, Gilles said.

“People love any information you can give them,” he said.

The app also enables his company to operate with greater efficiency, Gilles said.

His company typically schedules appointments a week ahead, but sometimes he gets calls for immediate help, such as frozen pipes in the middle of winter. Knowing where the workers are and where they’re going next allows Gilles to divert drivers to an emergency call, which increases the chance for more business.

Gilles said the app also reduces his worries about having company vehicles stolen. Spray foam insulation equipment is expensive, he said, and having some of it stolen can be a significant hit to the business.

The Spectrum Tracking app even rates the drivers on a scale of 1 to 100, and Gilles said his drivers are all above 90. The app has told him that he often accelerates his Toyota Prius too quickly. So the app helps his fleet improve its fuel economy as well. Plus, he said, data about mileage can be uploaded to spreadsheets, which saves time because it eliminates hand-written mileage logs.

Gilles usually works outside the office, which means he uses mostly the Spectrum Tracking app on his mobile phone, while the company’s office manager, Kasey Allen, usually tracks the business’ six vehicles on the office computer.

He frequently takes screenshots that he emails customers to keep them in the loop about when work crews are on the way. Allen said the software also provides information about vehicle diagnostics, such as battery life, which allows for more efficient scheduling of maintenance.

As well, he said the software eliminates lots of phone calls between the office and employees because Allen and Gilles no longer have to call them to see where they are or when they will arrive at their next appointment. The app even lets Gilles and Allen know when an employee starts a vehicle’s engine.

“So far, everything we need, it does for us,” Allen said.

He also said the software is intuitive, and he appreciated Lian coming to the office to guide staff through setup and use.

Profitable and growing

Lian said about 1,000 of his devices are now being used across the globe. He landed some customers through supplier connections in China and also recently signed up a commercial client in New Zealand, but about 90 percent of customers are in the U.S.

Two-thirds of Spectrum Tracking app users are parents, Lian said, and his next challenge will be increasing the share of business customers, who are likely to use the app for longer, as parents track the driving habits of their children only for a couple of years.

Spectrum Tracking breaks even on the hardware, Lian said, but also is generating about $9,000 per month in subscriptions, which means his business already is profitable. Subscriptions cost from $6.95 to $17.95 per month. The device sells for $77. Lian and his crew continue to make improvements to the software, but development is essentially completed, and his biggest expense now is advertising.

“Right now, I think we’re pretty happy,” he said.