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High-tech auto gadgets could help enforce safer driving

A worker builds cars on the assembly line at Ford's Chicago Assembly plant Chicago, Ill.

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Tess Vigeland: Nobody likes a snitch -- especially one with 150 horses under the hood. And these days it's entirely possible to drive a car that is telling on you. High-tech gadgets are hitting the road with us, aimed at changing our bad driving habits and maybe even saving us some money.

Marketplace's Bob Moon got caught up in all this recently, so we asked him to take the concept for a test drive.


Bob Moon: Have you noticed our cars are becoming nannies of the road? Take the new MyKey system that's now standard on most cars built by Ford. Maybe you own one of these new cars, or you've been in a rental car with the system activated. This car means business, when it all-but-demands that you fasten your seat belt.

Sound of chiming seat belt alarm

Andy Sarkisian: If you're not buckled up, the radio won't play.

Andy Sarkisian helped design Ford's unique MyKey system. It's being marketed -- in this commercial, for example -- as a tool to keep your kids in line, when they start driving the family car.

Ford commercial: MAN: "So how fast do you think this thing will go?" TEENAGER: "Oh, like, 130." ANNOUNCER: Which is the last thing a parent wants to hear. Once they hit MyKey's predetermined top speed, the limiter kicks in -- and, it's game over.

The car can be set to never exceed 80 miles per hour, and by popular demand, a limit of 65 is coming soon.

Sarkisian says this can also help the boss limit liability on company vehicles.

My introduction to MyKey came in California's Mojave Desert, when I, uh, accidentally got my Enterprise Rent-a-Car up to 80, and the speed limiter automatically engaged. Now, the contract says you're not supposed to drive in an unsafe manner -- but will they start enforcing it this way? Sarkisian says some rental companies have already signaled they're eager to impose these limits, with a special request to Ford.

Sarkisian: Asking us if there's tools that we can give them to make it easier to turn the system on more universally, rather than vehicle by vehicle. That's a future development that we're working on.

We wondered if new technologies like this might help lower insurance costs, but we haven't found any companies offering discounts for owners who use the system. If you're willing to let some insurance companies look over your shoulder as a backseat nanny, though, you might save some bucks.

Wisconsin-based American Family is offering a voluntary savings program that monitors the driver with a video camera. And Progressive Insurance has started offering up to 30 percent off for drivers who install a "black box." It monitors such things as aggressive braking and how often a driver is on the road past midnight.

Progressive's Richard Hutchinson says early testing shows some drivers won't make the grade in the company's Snapshot program, but he promises they won't see rates go up.

Richard Hutchinson: We've done it as "discount-only," primarily to make people feel comfortable that it's not something that's going to be used against them. So worst case, you go through the effort and then it doesn't work out. But, you know, for the majority of people, they do find that there is a discount in there for them.

Hutchinson says one in four customers are agreeing to use the black box, which regularly phones Progressive with their driving report card.

But not everyone's happy with the idea. Richard Riggs is a Marketplace listener in New Jersey. He fears this will eventually end up being required.

Richard Riggs: You know the game. The game is, if you participate, there'll be one price and if you don't participate, it will be another price. And the "another price" will be higher, even though you don't have any accidents.

If an 80 mile-per-hour speed limiter and monitoring of driving habits are such good ideas, might the government require them someday? At the Center for Auto Safety, director Clarence Ditlow doubts that, and says the marketplace will decide.

Clarence Ditlow: We see it much more likely to result in an insurance discount rather than the government mandate.

Then again, seat belts used to be voluntary too.

I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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