July 29, 2021
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nate Bryer.
Nate Bryer has been the Executive Vice President of RUC for Azuga, Inc. since May 2013 and is directly impacting a nationwide transportation funding system that hasn’t changed in over 100 years. He leads Azuga’s road usage charging (RUC) car line of business which has been instrumental in developing user-friendly account management systems for RUC programs in Oregon, California, Colorado, I-95 (an Eastern state coalition), Hawaii, and Washington. Pragmatic and consumer-conscious, Bryer has developed an emissions service that allows everyday people to complete their emissions testing while out on their day-to-day errands. In past years, he has been recognized as an innovator and leader in the insurance telematics industry and pioneered usage-based insurance with the implementation of Allstate’s Drivewise Telematics Insurance product.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
Thank you for the opportunity! Well, first, that’s the first time I’ve been asked to give my childhood backstory as part of a technical interview. I must say it’s a bit refreshing. As much as I’d like to think my backstory is super exciting, it’s probably similar to many others.
I was born in Oregon as child number five to two parents in the education system. My mom was a special education teacher, and my dad was a social worker. Could be why I think that the technology industry I have been specializing in for the past decade is just as much a study in human nature as it is a business solution. From Oregon, the family moved to the suburbs of Chicago. I think I did pretty much what every other kid in the suburbs did — ride my bike everywhere, chase lightning bugs in the summer, and go skating and sledding in the winter.
I did learn at an early age that I love cars — the faster and flashier the better. In thinking back, I might have been part of the last non-technology generation. No computers, no cell phones, no GPS, no real electronics of any kind. I thought the fire engine toy I received as a youngster that had flashing lights was the epitome of technical wizardry. But that changed in junior high when I was introduced to a Radioshack TRS 80. Seeing the awesome power of a keyboard and a tape player hooked up to a processor and screen and — boom — I was hooked on computers. Then in high school I got to drive my friend’s 1968 Pontiac GTO and I was hooked on cars.
In college, I did have a bit of a challenge when deciding on which major and career path to pick. I was torn between computer science or mechanical engineering. That was decided for me one night when I was working on rebuilding my 1976 Dodge Dart Slant 6 225 engine. I spent an entire evening working on removing it from the chassis and after I was done went back to my dorm room to clean up. I was at my room’s door when I looked back down the hallway where I had come from and noticed I had left a very distinct trail of very oily footprints all the way from the entrance of the floor leading directly to my room. That was pretty much the defining moment for my decision. As much as I loved working on cars, I decided computers would be a much easier thing to clean up after. [Bryer laughs.]
The first 20-plus years of my career I worked in the insurance industry. Despite insurance being considered a kind of dull business, it was actually a perfect fit for me. Insurance systems require quite a bit of technology and computer knowledge, and it is completely dependent on the automobile industry. So, in the end, I got to be involved in both of the things I love doing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I actually have lots of interesting things that have happened to me since I began my career, but the one that really sticks out is when I was given the opportunity to make a lateral move in the company I was working for from the technology department to the marketing department. I was able to keep all my seniority and leverage all my technology background but for creating direct-to-consumer products. Interestingly enough, one of the first products I designed was one using this new thing called telematics — the technology that I’m here talking about today. While in the marketing department, I met some of the more famous actors that starred in various commercials. I got to meet Dennis Haysbert (yes, he is REALLY tall) and I got to meet Dean Winters who makes a perfect Mr. Mayhem.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Hmm. I think this honor would go to my first manager. He was fairly young, but wise beyond his years and able to get his team to produce way more products than the other managers. He had a laid-back way about him but his attention to detail was excellent. He told me the secret to how he got so much done, and it was “I can do anything with good people.” I’ve never forgotten that and always try to surround myself with a team made up of good people because I have definitely been able to attest to how much can get accomplished by a team that is dedicated toward a common goal.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
That’s easy. My daughter has been keeping track of what she calls “dad-isms.” One of my favorites that I’ve shared with her is “Never mistake activity for accomplishment.” Think of the little hamster on its cute little hamster wheel. Lots and lots of activity, zero distance travelled. In my role as a business unit leader this life lesson has translated into me not really needing a lot of meetings or pomp and circumstance around product development. My measuring bar isn’t so much how long or hard it took to get something done, but in how much got done and how well it turned out.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The first characteristic that I think translates to success is goal-orientedness. Goals are all about having a direction and purpose. Can you imagine a soccer game without goals? It’s just a bunch of guys running around after a ball. No one — on nor off the field — enjoys that. As part of being goal-oriented, a secondary and necessary part of setting goals is making plans to achieve your goals. There are lots of nice quotes about having plans and failure if no plans are made and I can attest to how true they are. All the successful people have plans. They have plans for their career, their projects, their families, their hobbies and even how they want to get to dinner at the restaurant later. Plans matter. And not having one is a sure way of getting nowhere fast. Having a plan means knowing where you are, where you want to go and how you want to get there. For example: my desire to go to college. I knew that my parents, as much as they would have liked to, just didn’t have the resources to pay for my college so it was up to me. I set a goal to go to college and made plans to join the army which had a really decent program for paying for college for a soldier’s time in the service via the GI Bill and other programs. My goal was to go to college. My plan was to do three years in the army and see as much of Europe as possible. And drive a tank. Just had to drive a tank.
The second characteristic relates to the first and it is follow-through, or what I like to think of as “stick-to-it-ness.” Plans are good, but they are just words on a page. They aren’t action. You need to take action and make decisions that line up with your plan. When you are faced with a choice, make the best one that lines up with your plan and stick with it all the way through. We all sometimes make decisions that are counter intuitive or just plain bad, but don’t let that get you down. Successful people make their success one good decision at a time. For my plan to go to college , I joined the army and was sent to Germany for three years. As a tanker. I added to my plan while in the army to finish my associates degree so that I’d have a bit of a head start when I got out of the army. I would say that the plan I made was a good one and I executed on it successfully. I finished my time in the army, was able to see almost all of Europe and most definitely got to do plenty of tank driving and then went on to finish my undergrad degree in computer science and a Master’s in Business.
The last characteristic is my dedication to having fun. Work to live, don’t live to work. It’s just as important to have a life outside of work where you can decompress, have fun and relax. Without downtime you lose energy and sight of the things that really matter in life. During the execution of my plan to get my college degree while I was in the army, I bought myself a little German car and drove it everywhere I could during the weekends. I have so many fond memories of little German towns that had fun fests (think big tents and oompa music), great little cafes, and wonderful people to hang out with. If I hadn’t taken the time to purposely go have some fun, my time in the army would just be filled with lots of memories of being stuck in some pretty bland and boring barracks…and guard duty. Lots of guard duty. Soldiers that stayed around the barracks on the weekends with nothing to do got assigned lots of guard duty.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?
We want to make the road a better place. In short, we’re aiming to solve several problems of the road: infrastructure funding woes, driver conscientiousness, and emissions pollution. The U.S. is currently in an infrastructure funding crisis. Our roads and bridges are decades-old and literally falling apart. This is dangerous, causing expensive and often fatal accidents. I like to ask people How many bridges do you think are in the U.S.? No one guesses right. The answer is staggering: over 617,000. And the next question is How old do you think the bridges are? Over 40% of them are at least 50 years old. And then the last question is How safe do you think they all are? I assure you that most are safe, but over 7% of them (over 40,000) are considered structurally deficient. So, not to scare anyone, but think about that next time you are stuck in traffic on a bridge in rush hour. I’m trying to bring to market (and people’s awareness) a new way of getting the right funds at the right time to the right stretch of road.
So here’s the final piece of what most people don’t realize. For as long as most of us can remember, the U.S. has used a gas tax to help fund road construction and maintenance. It has been the ultimate “user fee” for all drivers. But now cars don’t burn as much fuel as they used to and more people are buying electric vehicles, so now gas tax revenues are too small (and getting smaller). We don’t have enough funds to make the roads and bridges better. At the same time, it isn’t easy to transition to a modern revenue mechanism. Over the years, the fuel tax has become “invisible” and paid without a second thought. People don’t like change and politicians are afraid to raise the fuel tax enough to make an impact, leaving the fuel tax increasingly outdated and ineffective.
These issues are made worse by the rise of traffic congestion and increased CO2 emissions. Americans covet their privilege to drive their private vehicles (I know I do) and have never thought about the air pollution or wear they bring to public roadways and bridges. They’ve never been able to measure their impact.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Our technology brings transparency to highway funding, makes it easy and engaging for the end users, and, in turn, makes mileage fees viable as a modern and effective alternative to gas tax. Plus, people can finally measure their presence and impact on the roads. Our users can view their trips, driving behavior, and carbon footprint.
Simultaneously, our tech inspires people to become better, safer drivers, too. We even make it fun and throw in a little healthy competition with driving scores and badges. Users drive more conscientiously to improve their score and compete with family or friends for “best driver” bragging rights, resulting in safer behavior on the road. Keep in mind, though, these are fun premium features that are only for people who want them and opt in. For government programs, we want to focus on just helping people handle road user fees and gas tax credits without a headache.
Anyway, looking at their road charges and trip logs, our customers are paying attention now more than ever to how much time they’re spending on the road. And our carbon footprint feedback allows them to finally put numbers to their daily emissions and maybe — just maybe — they can reconsider that next unnecessary trip across town.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
This passion definitely started after I transitioned from the technology department to the marketing department at the insurance company I was working for. While researching, designing, building, and implementing a usage-based insurance program I became quite passionate about everything to do with driving. Basically, why do we drive the way we drive and what are the impacts of our driving habits and behaviors? I actually became much more aware of my driving and the impact of my driving on others and the impact their driving had on me. My insurance job led me to my current job where I applied my skills in building systems to track driving behavior to just tracking miles. That might seem like a bit of a step down, but it’s not because the purpose of tracking those miles became oh-so-much-more important from a social construct standpoint. The purpose of tracking miles is to ensure that the right charge on the right person at the right time is collected to pay for the right road segment. It really is vital for a society to have good roads to be healthy. I have another nice saying for this: nothing should stop the free flow of traffic. And nothing stops the free flow of traffic faster than bad roads or poorly designed roads. Roads don’t pay for themselves and thus need a funding mechanism. As I already discussed, the current method is drying up (pun intended) and the method that my system provides may not last forever, but it will certainly be able to last longer than the current method which is about 100 years old.
How do you think this might change the world?
I think people right now take roads for granted. They expect the roads to be there when they want them to be and they expect them to be smooth and traffic-free. I think my system will help people realize that thinking that way is antiquated and not particularly helpful. People need to think of roads as utility or service — something that is necessary for their life and the general well-being of a finely tuned society. I like to explain to people that even though I don’t personally drive the generally accepted monthly average of 1000 miles a month, I still use them about that much. I get inquisitive looks and then I explain. I order services for food and other odd and ends throughout the month, which results in delivery vans arriving to my house to drop things off at my front door. I need those nice, smooth, traffic-free roads just as much when I don’t drive as when I do in order to get the next day delivery of some dog food for my little dogs. Without roads we have nothing. All goods and services are provided to their customers via roads, and those roads need to be paid for. If the current system is broken (and it is), then a new system like mine is just what is needed and can be put in place and slowly ramped up over time while the old system is retired. But why do I think it will change the world? That might be a little broad, but I truly do believe it will change transportation forever. Fuel taxes are an invisible tax but are single use. A system that can provide a means for tracking miles and collecting funds is multi-use. The same system for RUC can be used for tolling, or congestion pricing, or transportation research or a plethora of other transportation services. It’s the ultimate example of build and re-use — all for little to no extra cost to the taxpayers. Once the system is up and running at threshold, who knows how many other aspects of transportation it can assist with.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Naturally, people are afraid that if they opt for a GPS-enabled option for a road charge program, the government may have direct access to their driving behavior and location. Legislators are taking steps to keep driving data protected and we’re doing what we can to keep it locked away in a safe space, but this work must be continuous. If government ever expects the public to accept a mileage fee, privacy and security must be priorities. Period.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Making a positive impact on society is good for the soul. Sounds a bit pithy, but it really is true. When you do something for others that helps them or provides for them (and that definitely includes good roads) you feel good. It puts a smile on your face.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
That’s a no brainer. Elon Musk. His cars are what is causing this whole hoopla. Would love to sit down with him to see if it would be okay if I had some space in his vehicle app system to embed some RUC functionality. Would make this whole thing go way smoother. And if we did it, other automotive manufacturers might be inclined to follow suit sooner rather than later. A discussion over lunch and I’m confident I could convince him that it would work and work well.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can visit us at www.azuga.com/insight or follow us on Twitter (@azugainsight). We’re always making efforts to build our online community and to provide updates on progress toward changing the way people perceive driving and road funding.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity to get this topic out there. Thank you for the discussion.