The Hippo


Apr 24, 2014








Driven by technology
Yes, you can save money on car insurance — at a price

By John Andrews

I got my very own little Big Brother in the mail the other day.

It’s a small device, about the size of a smushed golf ball. There are three LEDs on one end and a plastic connector with nine metal pins on the other. It will tell my insurance company all kinds of things.

It’s called Progressive Snapshot, and it transmits data back to the insurance company to describe how safely I’m driving. The better I drive (in their opinion), the bigger discount I get next time the policy comes up for renewal.

How does it work? That connector is for my car’s On-Board Diagnostics version 2 port, or OBD-II. That’s the port mechanics use to interface with your car’s computer; most often, it provides a specific problem code when your Check Engine light is on. In this case, it gives the Snapshot hardware power and access to a few streams of data.

Officially, it only records how hard you brake, the number of miles you drive and the times of day you’re on the road. A video posted on Progressive’s website says it “doesn’t care” how fast you drive, but the privacy policy does say that “The Snapshot device records vehicle speed and time of day,” from which braking and mileage information is calculated, as well as the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and device connections and disconnections.

There’s no GPS in the thing, so it couldn’t transmit your location if it wanted to. It does use cellular networks, though, so in theory it could triangulate your approximate location based on distance to known cell towers. Not that it does. But it could.

Progressive has this kind of driver monitoring available in more states than other insurance companies, but they’re not far behind.

Allstate’s program is called Drive Wise and is very similar, with a nearly identical plastic doodad to plug into your OBD-II port. It records everything Snapshot records, as well as “hard cornering” and “hard acceleration.” If you’re the type to flee the highway in favor of twisty country roads, you probably won’t earn much of a discount.
GMAC Insurance doesn’t even need to send you a widget. Their Low-Mileage Discount program relies on the OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics already installed in thousands of GM vehicles. It just lowers your rate the fewer miles you drive in a year, because hey, less time on the road means less chance of an accident. And if you’re an OnStar subscriber already, then really, that information is being transmitted anyway.

State Farm also uses OnStar for a similar mileage-based discount called Drive Safe & Save in a few states, but they’re rolling out their own device on a trial basis in Illinois now for wider distribution in 2012. It’s called In-Drive, and while it gives you insurance discounts, there are monthly fees for its diagnostics, stolen vehicle location, driving risk assessment and roadside assistance. AAA will be using the same device next year.

All these programs, once they’re available here, are voluntary. If the idea of sending your encrypted driving data over the airwaves gives you the heebie-jeebies and a discount isn’t enough incentive to get you over that, then don’t participate. Will companies start requiring it in a few years? Let’s hope not, but time will tell.

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