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Ahead of the Curve Auto Supplier Blog

November 17, 2015

Is Big Brother Riding in Your Passenger Seat? (part 1)

Unlike the ubiquitous Las Vegas advertising touting that “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” patents issued to Allstate Insurance Company[1] promise just the opposite. What happens in your vehicle definitely will not stay in your vehicle. That could be a good – or bad – thing for drivers and their passengers. Living in the state with the highest average car insurance premiums in the nation, Michiganders may have particular interest.

Allstate’s patents cover driving analysis servers, systems, and methods that use sensors, telematics devices and cameras to identify “potentially high-risk or unsafe driving behavior.” This information will be used to calculate or adjust a “driver score,” which will be used to determine coverage, premiums, deductibles, award safe driver discounts, etc.

We all have a general idea of what constitutes potentially high-risk or unsafe driving behavior, such as speeding, sudden braking, swerving, tailgating, etc. However, there are times when such behavior is necessary. Thankfully, Allstate’s new technology accounts for situations such as this. For example, data from other vehicles can be compared against your own vehicle’s data to determine if there is an explanation for your “questionable” driving behavior, e.g. to avoid an accident or to merely go with the flow of traffic.

What may surprise you is just how much information Allstate may potentially gather about you, your passengers, or even complete strangers. Each of Allstate’s patents state that (emphasis added; numerals omitted):
 
The vehicle may also include one or more cameras and proximity sensors capable of recording additional conditions inside or outside of the vehicle. Internal cameras may detect conditions such as the number of passengers in the vehicle, and potential sources of driver distraction within the vehicle (e.g., pets, phone usage, unsecured objects in the vehicle). External cameras and proximity sensors may detect other nearby vehicles, traffic levels, road conditions, traffic obstructions, animals, cyclists, pedestrians, and other conditions that may factor into a driving analysis. ...

Additionally, the telematics device may be configured to collect data regarding the number of passengers and the types of passengers (e.g. adults, children, teenagers, pets, etc.) in the vehicle. The telematics device also may be configured to collect data on a driver's movements or the condition of a driver. For example, the telematics device may include or communicate with sensors that monitor a driver's movements, such as the driver's eye position and/or head position, etc. Additionally, the telematics device may collect data regarding the physical or mental state of the driver, such as fatigue or intoxication. The condition of the driver may be determined through the movements of the driver or through sensors, for example, sensors that detect the content of alcohol in the air or blood alcohol content of the driver, such as a breathalyzer. ...

Other driving behaviors that may be identified based only on the vehicle operation data include failure to use seatbelts, phone usage while driving, loud noise levels inside the vehicle while driving (e.g., high stereo volume or passenger noises), or other distractions in the vehicle (e.g., animated passengers or pets in the vehicle, eating while driving, texting while driving, etc.). ...
 
Because many drivers often go years if not decades between traffic violations or accidents, Allstate could obviously benefit from knowing how you drive to predict the likelihood of such an event occurring. Insurance companies have conventionally relied on outdated driving records, less than honest information provided by the insured, geographic location, and socioeconomic status. You may not be aware, but your credit history is the most updated information that insurance companies can rely upon! However, how much invasion of privacy is too much? This is an old question raised in a new venue.

Does information really need to be gathered every time you are in your vehicle? What about when you are outside your vehicle? Will it matter if you are actually driving or merely parked? Can private data like PIN numbers, passwords, or social security numbers be captured by internal cameras? Will private telephone or passenger-to-passenger conversations be captured by internal microphones? How will collected information be stored, transmitted and ultimately protected from nefarious parties? Will anyone be able to figure out how their driver score is calculated or be able to question its veracity?

Taking it a step further, when will insurance companies sell this information to marketers? Who’s watching out for the consumer here? And will the consumer have anything to say about it? Does one “opt in” to potentially qualify for a safe driver discount or simply become an unwitting victim of overzealous data collection? How will a passenger or person outside the vehicle “opt out”? And will information collected on such people be used for or against them in the future should they be a policy holder or not?

Like it has done everywhere else, technology is forcing insurance companies to update their business models. With autonomous vehicles on the horizon, premiums are expected to plummet as the number of accidents drop. As such, pressure is mounting for insurers to protect their flanks and Allstate’s new technology may help them to do so. It’s not surprising that insurance companies are seeking new revenue streams through data collection for both the short and long term. For now, collected data can be used to optimize insurers’ policies. In the future, selling collected data may make up a majority of insurers’ portfolios to make up for decreased premiums.

The concern used to be that “Big Brother is watching” wherever you may be. Now it appears that he’ll be riding along with you while you’re getting there! However, is this a passenger that you want to have with you or someone you’d rather leave at the side of the road?

Allstate has additional applications pending and other insurance companies are jumping into the mix. Stay tuned as we’ll keep you abreast of all the latest development on Ahead of the Curve. 
 

[1] U.S. Patent Nos. 9,081,650 and 9,104,535 each entitled “Traffic Based Driving Systems.”

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