GPS unit, meet car insurance

Imagine if your car insurance company and your in-car navigation device started talking to each other. Oh, they’d be best of pals: they'd share everything -- and occasionally they'd even share with you. (I can hear it now: “Took that corner a little fast, didn’t you? Remember, we give you these low rates for a reason...”)

Progressive and other insurance companies in the U.S. have been playing with this general idea of tracking you while you drive. But it's in the U.K. that we now have a roll-out of this truly magical tie-up, between car insurance and a consumer gadget that millions of us already carry. The navigation units come from TomTom; they send your real-time driving behavior to a U.K. insurer called Motaquote. The product they’ve teamed up on is called “Fair Pay Insurance.” The idea is pretty basic: drive safer, get better rates. We’re watching you.

Jonathan Zittrain, professor at Harvard Law School and cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, thinks this is great. “I see no reason why people's driving behavior shouldn't be counted for or against them on their insurance rates,” he says. “And given the amount of injuries and fatalities coming from car accidents that might be preventable, it might really have an impact on people's driving and on accidents.”

With access to your real-time GPS data, Fair Pay will likely know your speed, braking, cornering technique -- as well as in what conditions and how often you’re driving. If it lowers your rates, great. But that’s hardly inevitable. Zittrain says as the practice expands -- and he thinks it will, like gangbusters -- he’d like to see an important condition applied:

You don't want the insurance companies to just on their own unreviewably say, “Oh by the way, we've looked at your data and you're kind of a bad driver, send us more money, your rates just went up.” I think we'd want to have a system where people own their own data generated by these GPSs, can choose to share it not just with the insurance company they have right now, but with any other candidate insurance company and say, “Hey, does anybody else want to offer me a better rate?”

One distinguishing thing about the nav-unit/insurance tie-up -- as distinct from some current driver-monitoring efforts by companies like Progressive in the U.S. -- is the ability of the unit to offer you real-time feedback. That’s something Fair Pay expects to do. Zittrain says studies show drivers are glad to improve their driving if they can.

And backseat mother-in-laws everywhere will surely be glad for the second opinion from up front.

Also on the program today: The Pew Center for the Internet and American life says adults are mostly happy when they’re using social networks, and mostly witness good behavior there. But here are some other fun stats:

  • 15 percent of adult SNS users said they had an experience on the site that ended their friendship with someone.
  • 12 percent of adult SNS users had an experience that resulted in a face-to-face argument or confrontation with someone.
  • 11 percent of adult SNS users had an experience on the site that caused a problem with their family.
  • 3 percent of SNS-using adults said they had gotten into a physical fight with someone based on an experience they had on the site.
  • 3 percent of adult SNS users said their use of the site had gotten them in trouble at work because of something that happened on the site.

Next time you feel you're getting steamed up, heed that classic advice form Dr. Suess - Fox in Socks, wasn't it? "Maybe better to be bitter than a Twitter battle beating."

About the author

Jeff Horwich is the interim host of Marketplace Morning Report and a sometime-Marketplace reporter.

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