Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Quantified Car: Progressive Snapshot


January 31, 2012 at 10:55 pm (One Comment)

Let me paint you a picture: It’s the near future.  Your insurance company sends you a little gadget that you carry around.  It notes when you get a little too aggressive or if you’re out partying too late, and automatically sends the information wirelessly back to your insurance company (say, the 164th largest company in the US).  If you do something they consider risky, it might even alert you with a buzz or beep.  If you fit their definition of lower-risk (by, say, not being out past midnight) they give you a discount on your policy.

Sounds like the future, doesn’t it?  Pervasive metric collection, big data analytics, pattern and custom behavior based pricing optimization?  Except that it’s been available since last year, just for your car.

Progressive calls it Snapshot, it’s a little device that plugs into your car’s debug port.  It gets it’s power from the car’s battery, reads the car’s metrics directly from the car’s computer and reports automatically back to Progressive via the AT&T network.  They know how fast you’ve gone (speed 1 second ago – speed now = braking speed per second, over a 7 mph drop per second and you’re a risk), they know when you drive (the cell network includes time as part of its protocol, so you never need to set its clock), what you drive (the vehicle identification number is transmitted) and likely generally where you drive (since they presumably know what cell tower the device is talking to).  There isn’t a GPS in it so they don’t know exactly where you are (so unlike a car rental monitor, they don’t know if you were breaking the law by speeding in a specific place).  Since they’re your insurance company they also know a lot about you financially (they use your credit history to determine your rate, for instance), where you live (if you live in a shady neighborhood, full coverage might be more expensive), how old you are (if you’re young you pay more), your gender (girls pay less) and whatever other data they can derive from your name and address (oh, you gave them your social security number when you signed up, didn’t you?).

To some people this is just usage based car insurance, which has been around for a while.  For those in the experience and conversion monetization business, this is something else.  It’s an insane treasure trove of data, willingly given by customers.  Their privacy statement explicitly says so: ‘To meet our legal obligations to state departments of insurance, we retain information collected or derived from the device for the time we determine is required by law; after which we will de-personalize the data and keep it indefinitely.’  Imagine what kind of data their analysts are rolling in!  “Here’s a snow day in Texas, notice how 50% fewer people who live in higher income neighborhoods aren’t commuting today, presumably because they can telecommute, but only 15% of people in less advantaged neighborhoods are staying at home.”  “35% of 32-35 year old primary drivers with 1+ children make 3+ mid-day trips during the week, while only 25% of 36-42 year olds do.”  “Here’s the rage-graph of peak braking velocity grouped by age, notice how it drops from 21 on, then spikes again for men at what’s considered the mid-life-crisis.”  If dating sites can produce interesting graphs like these, imagine what insurance companies can do?

Some people would be shouting Big Brother and 1984 at this point, but in reality it’s no more than Google, Facebook or your cell phone provider know about you.  When your pill bottles report back to your insurance company, it’s no more than your health insurance provider knows about you.  The future is going to be behavior modification heavy.  Unless society reacts strongly and begins to value privacy and anonymity more, it’s how everything’s going to be.  Google makes it’s money because it knows who you are and can optimize your ad viewing experience to maximize the money you spend.  Insurance companies want people who brake slowly, don’t drive at peak times or even drive much at all.  Energy companies want people to not use power at peak times.  Some companies may even want to use the data to optimize our collective driving experience by crowdsourcing the speed of traffic to avert gridlock.

Progressive doesn’t do a great job of explaining what Snapshot is in it’s commercials, it isn’t an easy story to tell in 30 seconds, but it isn’t hard to convince someone to try it when they’re on the phone switching car insurance.  “Save up to 30%, no possibility of my rate increasing?  Sign me up!”  In fact, if not for the fact that my sister-in-law mentioned driving slower due to her Snapshot beeping at her for braking hard, I probably would have never realized that it was the quantified self in car form.  For those of us in the ‘data industry,’ the potential is scary, but for some of middle America a 30% reduction in car insurance is worth the loss of privacy.  How long and how far it’ll go, only the future can tell.

Update:

I haven’t seen a teardown of the Snapshot device, yet.  I’d be curious to see what’s inside.  It also seems like Allstate has something similar (nee identical) called Allstate Drive Wise.  In fact, they were fighting it out over whether each could offer it.

If I were writing the Bruce Sterling or Cory Doctorow version of this story, there would be an enterprising group of car tuners on the border, maybe driving stolen cars through Nuevo Laredo, their tech guru comes up with some fancy way to rewrite the VIN data as it’s read off the engine debug port and they realize they can make a little dongle that sits between the debug port and the Snapshot device to smooth out acceleration data.  They get somebody in Shanghai or Monterrey to make 10,000 of them, and since it’s a legal grey area, get people to mark them up 150% and sell them with targetted Facebook ads.  “Maximize your insurance discount!  Drive how you want!”  Who knows if the Snapshot devices can have their firmware updated over the air, but if they can, imagine a running tech battle between the car chippers and Progressive programmers like the DirecTV access card hackers back in the day.

On a more melancholy note (maybe this is the William Gibson version), with so many people using Snapshot, essentially a wirelessly connected black box for your car, statistically there have to be some people who have had accidents and likely died, with the graph of data from the exact moment of the crash sitting on Progressive’s servers.  Imagine a particularly effected individual in the data processing department collecting those and spinning art out of them in an anonymous only-on-the-internet memorial.