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Guess Who Loves The Quantified Car?

Insurance companies pioneered data collection devices for cars, but Automatic plans to build a platform where that data is open to developers.

Guess Who Loves The Quantified Car?
[Image courtesy of the Author]

Turns out monitoring your driving isn’t the same as monitoring your health. Seeing Automatic’s small hardware device advertised as a way to track a car’s route, gas usage, even see diagnostic info, made me assume I would be quantifying myself in the same way I would using the data from a Fitbit. I was wrong. Quantifying driving does one surprising thing exceptionally well–it personalizes the exact cost of your relationship with your car.

The $99 device plugs into your car’s OBDII port, there to record the surge of information released as you press the pedals. The difference between counting your steps and counting the miles, though, is that all your car’s variables cost something: the pattern of maintenance, the type of gas you use, how hard you brake, and which insurance provider you choose.

In fact, this whole idea was pioneered by the insurance industry. As early as 2004, Progressive Auto Insurance was publically experimenting with hardware devices like this, connected to cars as a way to track driving habits. Today, the company uses a production version of that device they call Snapshot–similar size and shape to Automatic’s Link–that plugs into a car’s OBDll port and (voluntarily, on behalf of the customer) monitors data from the car. Allstate Auto Insurance also has a similar device, though Progressive has been more aggressive in the space and owns the trademark to “Pay As You Drive” in the United States, also known as “pay how you drive.”

“In our Snapshot program we’ve found that actual driving behavior is the leading variable in predicting a driver’s risk,” Jeff Sibel, a Progressive spokesman, told me. “Snapshot measures the time of day you’re driving, the amount of miles you drive, and how many hard brakes you made. The discount is not based on location or speed, and the current model does not have GPS functionality, so Progressive does not know where the car is.”

From individual drivers to tracking vehicles citywide, governments are also interested in using driving data to save money. The Telegraph recently reported that the Highways Agency in the U.K. is tracking users’ cell phone location in order to see road congestion and traffic conditions. Anonymous and without explicit consent, using cell locations is a part of a new project that aims to cut costs of traditional monitoring efforts using traffic cams or rubber hoses spread across the road.

The financial aspect makes sense, but why aren’t companies interested in quantifying our driving data to improve our physical or emotional health? Automatic may not be doing it itself, but it will give others a chance to when it launches a platform. “It’s easy to get distracted by all the things we can build, so we’re trying hard to stay focused and do a few things well” says Automatic CEO Thejo Kote. “We won’t do all of it on our own. At some point we’ll have an API and I can’t wait to see what people will build.”

Kote explained how Automatic has impacted his daily life. “I’ve been fascinated by the power of information to change behavior for some time. The way I drive and use my car has definitely changed. I now know that public transit is actually more expensive than just driving to work. But, the cost of parking in San Francisco makes public transit win by a big margin.”