Progressive’s Snapshot – Auto Insurance Pandora’s Box?

October 29, 2011

snapshot-s.jpgIf you watch TV you’re probably familiar with Progressive and its clever TV advertisements. These TV commercials do a good job of conveying Progressive’s low cost quality auto insurance offerings. The same familiar perky smiling host is always present with words of wisdom and a "can do" attitude. She listens to the customer and then recommends an auto insurance plan that meets that customer’s needs and desires. The customer in the commercial always walks away happy. Just the type of customer service you want when buying auto insurance.

Progressive recently debuted a new commercial which is like the others with a new twist. This commercial like the others promises low cost auto insurance (up to 30% to be exact) however there’s a catch. It requires a customer to enroll in a program called Snapshot where a small device just slightly larger than a USB thumb drive is sent to the customer to plug into his or her car’s data port. Seems harmless enough on the surface but there’s much more here than meets the eye. The data port connects to a car’s central computer which for late model cars controls all aspects of a car’s operation including engine management, brake control, traction control, etc. If a car’s computer goes haywire your car won’t run. In fact the computer not only controls all functionality it collects and logs data – it does such a good job that police and accident investigators can determine in some cases what caused an auto accident just by pulling data from a car’s computer. This computer system on all late model cars is referred to as On-Board Diagnostics II (OBD-II), and the port which allows a device such as the Snapshot to read data from the OBD-II system is a OBD-II data port. Anyone who has encountered a check engine or warning light will take the car into a repair shop for servicing where an auto technician or mechanic will plug in a device which will read the error code that caused the warning light to appear. From this code the technician or mechanic can determine what is wrong and fix it. These code readers can be purchased at an auto parts store or Sears for those who like to work on their own cars or just want to know what’s wrong when a warning light appears on the dash. Where this is beneficial is on a long trip. Nothing is worse than having a warning light appear when many miles from home. With the reader you plug into the OBD-II port and the error code is given with a brief description. In the cases where a description is not given but more info is needed doing a Google search of the code will give you all the information you need. So if you discover your gas cap has gone bad, you know you can keep driving that your car will make it to your destination and you can at your convenience get the bad gas cap replaced. However if you discover that your V6 engine is only running on five cylinders instead of six, you know to go immediate to the first auto repair shop you can find, to ensure you don’t damage your engine.

OBD in the early 1980s was on most new cars, back then its main purpose was to monitor and control emissions and provide very basic engine control functions. The modern fuel injection system all new cars use could have never been possible without OBD.  Ironically there were different terms for this snapshot-1.jpgsystem back then "OBD" was not commonly used until the 1990s, and the original OBD system is sometimes referred to as OBD-1. The current OBD-II systems have been around in the U.S. for almost 16 years. OBD-II was mandated on all cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. starting January 1, 1996.     

What Progressive is doing with its Snapshot device is tapping into its customers’ OBD-II diagnostic/computer systems and collecting realtime data. What the commercial doesn’t tell the viewer is what Progressive does with the data. Its own vague words on its website states "your driving snapshot includes the number of miles you drive, time of day you drive and how often you make sudden stops. People who drive less, in safer ways and during safer times of day could get a discount." Translated this means if you want the discount Progressive determines when you can drive, how you can drive, and for how long you can drive. In other words Progressive begins to control your behavior. You like to drive somewhere however its during peak hours, you might lose the discount so you don’t drive. You happen to be driving carefully and someone pulls right out in front you and you swerve and hit the brakes hard to avoid a collision. Progressive may see this as aggressive driving and your discount is lost. You may normally drive your car very few miles a week but circumstances may change and you do a lot of driving for a few days – again your discount could be in jeopardy.   

What Snapshot in effect is doing is putting an insurance agent in your passenger seat monitoring every aspect of your driving. Is this really worth a possible 30% discount? To most people who want to keep their freedom and privacy, it’s not worth it. However the danger of such a system is that it becomes optional at first and then soon its mandatory for all customers not just of one insurance company but of all of them. Allstate in some states also has a similar program called Drive Wise, which provides the customer with a similar plug-in device when enrolled in the program (they also claim up to 30% off if you enroll in their program). However with Drive Wise, Allstate even admits that participants in the program driving speeds of over 80 mph will penalized. Some may say this is not a big deal however there are many highways and interstates with a 70 mph and 75 mph speed limit. If you happen to pass another car and hit 80, you will be penalized. And there are a few areas in Texas and Utah with an 80 mph speed limit. if you happen to drive on one of these roads and do the speed limit, expect your insurance rate with Allstate’s Drive Wise to skyrocket.     

And with any data collected there’s always a risk with it being shared with a third-party. For instance Progressive with the Snapshot plug has the possibility of figuring your habits and habits can be used to put you in a marketing category. As an example if you happen to be a senior citizen with health problems and see the snapshot-2.jpgdoctor on a regular basis which happens to be the only time you drive. It’s possible to figure out this driving pattern with a device like the Snapshot, and your information could be sold to medical related companies and soon you are bombarded with phone calls and mail from medical companies trying to sell you their products. More than likely this would not happen however the only way you can ensure it won’t occur is by not sharing your car’s ODB-II information.

The current ways that all insurance companies use to determine a person’s rate from a driving record and other traditional well-proven methods are accurate and effective. There’s absolutely no good reason why a tracking device in a customer’s car must be deployed by Progressve and Allstate to monitor a driver’s activity. It’s the equivelent of using a jackhammer to make a hole punch into a piece of paper.

Progressive as previously mentioned has a solid reputation of offering good quality auto insurance for low prices, always makes it known in a subtle or sometimes overt way that they care for the customer in its commercials. Unfortunately Snapshot is not in the customer’s best interest. The best way to ensure that Snapshot and other future programs like it are never mandatory is to not participate in them. If you are a Progressive or Allstate customer don’t be afraid to voice your concerns with company representatives or your insurance agent that you don’t appreciate programs like Snapshot and Drive Wise. Companies like Progressive and Allstate are in business to make a profit, as long as we don’t spend our hard earned money to support programs that take away our freedom and privacy such as Snapshot and Drive Wise – they will be unprofitable and never takeoff. If Snapshot and Drive Wise are successful you can expect they will open up Pandora’s box for all drivers – don’t let the carrot of a 30% discount fool you.

Written contents in this article – © 2011 Pete Dunton – All Rights Reserved

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