How the Tiwi System Works

Car Gadgets Image Gallery The Tiwi system is a computer that uses GPS technology to let parents monitor their children's driving behavior. See more pictures of car gadgets.
© Tiwi

­After reaching the age of 15, teenagers in some parts of the United States can head over to the DMV and take a written test to possibly get a driver's permit -- the first official step in learning how to drive. It's essentially a license to practice, but it has its restrictions. To legally drive with a learner's permit, a teen must also have a licensed adult present in the passenger seat while the car's on the road. The idea, of course, is to provide the teen with on-the-road experience, while at the same time, the adult is there to instruct the novice driver on good driving skills.

The real sense of freedom, however, comes a little bit later -- sometimes a year later, other times a little longer -- when it's time to head back to the DMV to take both a written test and a road test. The mixed sense of nervousness, relief and freedom one feels after passing the tests and receiving a driver's license can be a feeling most high schoolers will remember in the coming years. Having the independence to drive on your own or with friends is something many look forward to once they have their new license in hand.


But as fun, liberating and grown-up as it might feel for a new driver to finally hit the road, there is increasing concern over the safety issues that come with teen driving. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among teenagers in the U.S., accounting for more than a third of all deaths for people between the ages of 16 and 19 [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].

To combat this, parents, state governments and other organizations are devising ways to educate new drivers, including tougher laws and restrictions and a more involved graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems that give teens as much experience as possible before they receive full licensure.

­A popular current trend, however, involves using GPS computer technology to track and monitor teen driving habits. One of these devices is the Tiwi, developed by Inthinc, and its makers claim it's a "breakthrough" in monitoring technology. There are several of these types of devices already on the market, so how is the Tiwi different?


Tiwi and the Speed Limit

The Tiwi System is different from other monitoring computers in that it can identify an area's speed limit and alert parents when their child is speeding.
© Tiwi

When they first head out on the road after getting a license, teenagers haven't much experience behind the wheel, and they're likely to underestimate dangerous situations on the road. For some parents concerned about their children's driving habits, purchasing and installing a GPS-based electronic unit into their teen's vehicle is one way to keep an eye out even when they can't be in the car with their teen. The idea is to monitor the teen's driving habits by communicating with the parents over phone, text messaging or e-mail. There are several different models on the market, and almost all of them send information on a vehicle's location or how fast a teen is driving.

The big difference with the Tiwi system, however, is its ability to understand the speed limit in which the car is located. Most GPS-based computer monitors will tell parents how fast their child is driving, and there may even be a function that lets them set a personal speed limit. For example, if parents don't want their children driving more than 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour), they can set that as a limit, and if the driver exceeds that limit, the computer will send a message to the parents. From there, they can decide whether or not they should talk to their child and tell them to slow down or come home.


With the Tiwi, the GPS is sophisticated enough to tell how fast a teen is going in a certain area, and whether or not he or she is going faster than the posted speed limit. The Tiwi alerts the parents, but before it does, the computer system itself will talk to the teen. A recorded voice will tell the driver, "You're exceeding the speed limit; please slow down."

The Tiwi System computer is a small, gray, square box that sits on the vehicle's dash. It sells for around $549, and there's a monthly subscription fee of either $24.95 or $34.95, depending on the type of communication parents want.

So the Tiwi can tell you if your teen is speeding; what other features does it offer?


Tiwi Features

Parents can choose different types of communication, including phone, text messages and e-mail, and they can even talk to teens directly through the Tiwi itself. This should make it difficult for these teens to joyride so gleefully.
© Christoph Martin/Getty Images

­After purchasing the Tiwi, parents can sign into a special Web-based dashboard account that allows them to customize several settings. Here they can choose how they receive certain alerts. There are three ways the Tiwi can communicate with them -- by phone, text message or e-mail. Parents can either communicate with their child by one of the three previous methods or they have the option to communicate through the Tiwi itself. If parents don't want their offspring distracted by a phone call or a text message that might take his or her eyes off the road, there's a built-in cell phone inside the Tiwi that lets parent and child talk hands-free.

And if watching the speed limit wasn't enough, the Tiwi can also notify parents when a teen enters or leaves specific areas. This is called "geofencing," and parents can set up a virtual fence around places like the neighborhood or the school the teen attends -- a delinquent student intent on skipping class for the day, for instance, might have a harder time getting away with cutting class if the Tiwi sends parents a message the moment the car heads somewhere other than the campus.


Along with GPS technology to monitor location and speed, the Tiwi also has an accelerometer inside, which can measure dangerous driving activities like aggressive turning and hard acceleration and braking. Accelerometers are electronic devices that use pendulums to measure movement and changes in direction. Slam on the brakes, and the pendulum will swing forward -- if that swing is too drastic, the Tiwi will alert parents. Since safety is the main focus of the Tiwi, the system can also be used for emergency alerts in the event of an accident.

The Tiwi System isn't just found on the dashboards of teens' vehicles -- it actually got its start in NASCAR, a sport where speeding is encouraged. After NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001, Inthinc (under the name Independent Witness) developed a number of "black boxes" that recorded crash data, and eventually Tiwi systems began popping up on the dashboards of NASCAR race cars. Along with crash data, the computers also record lap times and counts for the races.

For lots more information on the Tiwi and other auto-related content, see the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "Teen drivers: fact sheet." July 18, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2009)
  • Tiwi. "Tiwi." (Jan. 5, 2009)
  • Wilson, Kevin. "Coach in a box: electronic unit mentors young drivers." Autoweek. Sept. 8, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2009)