Ina Fried

Recent Posts by Ina Fried

Progressive Insurance Taps AT&T to Get a Snapshot of Customers’ Driving Habits

If you’ve been watching TV any time in the last few weeks, you have probably heard about a new device from Progressive Insurance that lets users get a discount by agreeing to use a small device, called the Snapshot, that monitors how they are driving. At the core of the device is an embedded cellular module that uses AT&T’s network to send the data after each trip.

In particular, Progressive collects data on how far and when a user is driving as well as how fast they are accelerating or braking at any given moment. Braking data, in particular, is used as a way to assess how safely a driver is going.

“Braking gives an insight into the quality of your driving,” Progressive’s Richard Hutchinson told Mobilzed. “I can be going fast but (if I am in) open spaces with little traffic, that is a different risk than going fast in a very concentrated area. That will show up in braking patterns.”

While cars have been able to collect such data via sensors for some time, the information has largely remained trapped inside the vehicle–until the Snapshot came along.

The Snapshot is just one example of a fast-growing segment of the cell phone industry–the market for embedded devices that allow machines to talk to other machines. AT&T, for example added 1.5 million such devices last quarter and now has 9.3 million “connected devices” on its network including everything from Kindles to automated pill bottles to other automotive applications. Ford, for example, has partnered with AT&T to use the company’s network to allow Focus Electric owners control vehicle settings away from their car.

While there has been a lot of hype around the potential for cellular connections to revamp existing businesses, Hutchinson said that Snapshot shows that the technology is ready for prime time.

“We’re a good example of where it is moving from concepts and pilots to now it is real,” he told Mobilized.

Indeed, the idea behind the Snapshot has been brewing for about 20 years at Progressive when an unhappy customer asked why they company could charge based on how they actually drive as opposed to relying on complicated and sometimes unfair pricing models.

The company decided to look into how they might be able to create a service that monitored driving habits and priced itself accordingly. It was a decade ago before they could even try it out, initially via a device that had to be professionally installed and was hard-wired to the vehicle. A decade ago the company did a trial in Houston with about 600 cars that relied on satellite technology to get the data out of the cars.

It has taken until now to become truly commercially feasible, Hutchinson said, noting that the Snapshot costs under $100 to manufacture, with the cellular module being the biggest part of the cost. Cellular service is also an issue.

When Progressive began trying to develop Snapshot, pricing was still a challenge with cellular carriers wanting to charge for each car module as if it was its own phone and needed its own plan. These days, things are shifting to where companies can buy data in large amounts and pay for what they need.

The service is entirely optional, Progressive insists, and doesn’t collect location information or other data, though some customers remain concerned about privacy issues.

“That is the single biggest issue consumers have–fear of tracking their location,” Hutchinson said.

Progressive is also promising customers that use the device that their rates can only go down–as much as 30 percent. Most people do qualify for a discount, with the average user getting a discount of 10 to 15 percent.

One limitation still remains: The company still has to get state-by-state approval to offer Snapshot-based pricing. It’s now available in 33 states, but not in California, for example.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus