WisBusiness: DriveAlternatives.com provides convenient service for green drivers

By Ann Huenink

For those who choose to drive “green,” finding fuel stations across the United States just got a little easier.

DriveAlternatives.com, developed by UW-Madison graduate students, generates maps of alternative fuel stations in cities across the United States.

Any driver with a vehicle using green technology including hybrid, biodiesel, E85, electric, compressed natural gas, hydrogen and propane can log on to this user-generated site to find the nearest place to fill up their vehicles with the appropriate class of gasoline. There are more than 7,000 stations included in this specific search engine, based out of Google Maps.

In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a $17-million contract with GM for the purchase of 1,300 E85 vehicles. Schwarzenegger wanted more Californians to “Live Green, Go Yellow” and use biofuel. But the governor soon discovered there were fewer than five E85 gas stations in the entire state of California and that most of these 1,300 E85 vehicles were running off conventional gasoline.

If only Schwarzenegger had known how many alternative fuel stations there were in the state before launching this green campaign.

“It was a huge faux pas. I took that scenario and my own experiences and said ‘Well, why doesn’t someone just plot it out on Google Maps,’” said Kavi Turnbull, founding partner of DriveAlternatives.com.

DriveAlternatives.com is the first search engine that generates actual maps when searching for alternative gas stations. The site was created using mapping software that Google released to developers.

By releasing this program, Google hopes to increase internet trafficking so that their mapping software can get more exposure. As a map generating search engine, DriveAlternatives.com is a one-site wonder, everything visitors need is generated in one search.

Turnbull doesn’t believe that his competition to DriveAlternatives.com is very useful or practical. One competitor offers a listing of cities and the gas stations, while another offers a texting service to cell phones. By generating a map, users can visually see where the city and actual gas station are located.

Turnbull, along with business partner and former college roommate Ben Talberg, have been working on the idea of a user-generated search related to green fuels since June 2007. They were semi-finalists in the 2008 Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

“I’ve owned several biodiesel cars and so I knew there was a problem there,” said Turnbull, who envisions phased growth for DriveAlternatives.com.

The current phase of DriveAlternatives.com is the actual map generating search engine and is only the first of four phases that the aspiring entrepreneurs have planned for their company. The next phase consists of launching DriveAlternative.mobi to be used on cell phones. But first, Turnbull and Talberg would like to see 2,000 visitors per day to DriveAlternatives.com before moving on to the next step.

“If this thing is scaled up, all phases in place we’ll create maybe 15 jobs. It’s not going to be a huge company,” Turnbull said. But nonetheless, DriveAlternatives.com is hoping to make a difference in consumers purchasing green fuels.

Turnbull plans to work on the website full-time this summer, foregoing a summer internship. Business partner Ben Talberg will soon be quitting his current job and joining Turnbull in working full time on their business. This could leave them in a tight financial situation.

Once the site is up and running, money will be made by selling ad space. Turnbull envisions one day having auto manufacturers advertise on the site so that DriveAlternatives.com can fulfill a specific niche in the green auto industry.

“I’m happy with only having put $2,500 into this so far,” Turnbull said. But more funding will be necessary in order to complete all four phases of the original business plan.

Huenink is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.