About Those Insurance Company Black Boxes

March 12th, 2015

Most of you know that motor vehicles manufactured since the mid-1990s contain onboard black boxes that not only provide system diagnostics for service technicians, but record data about your day-to-day use of the vehicle. You might compare it to the black box that investigators always try to recover in the wake of an airplane crash. They want to know exactly what happened in the moments before a crash so they can determine a cause.

With a motor vehicle, when you take the vehicle to the shop for service, they will often connect their diagnostic computer to an OBD-II port, which is usually accessible from the driver’s side, which gives them the full readout. If something failed, they’ll know when and what, so they can repair or replace the appropriate parts. Of course this doesn’t mean there’s no need for a skilled mechanic, but just listening to the engine isn’t enough with today’s complicated engine management hardware.

I remember some recent visits to the dealer to check into a curious starting problem on my Kia. This happened in December, where, on a cold morning, I couldn’t put the car in reverse. Usually, just shutting the engine off and starting it again would fix the problem. On the first visit, the dealer declared two battery cells dead, replaced them and assumed that was it. But the transmission oddity didn’t flag an error code.

It took a second visit to get to the real cause — or an additional  cause — a failing switch attached to the transmission. This time the failure was properly flagged, and traced to a $53 part, easily replaced. The car hasn’t misbehaved since. But due to the erratic nature of the problem, and the difficulty duplicating it after the engine warmed, the onboard computer readout was essential to finding a solution to the problem.

Since those onboard systems record driver actions too, some insurance companies have developed schemes to tap into that information and figure out just what sort of risk you really are behind the well. It requires attaching a wireless telematics device to the vehicle’s diagnostic port to send this information to their datacenters.

In order to entice you to reveal your true day-to-day driving behavior, the insurance company will usually offer you some sort of discount to install the device, with the promise of further discounts if your driving record matches their pre-built profile for safe drivers. And, yes, they assure you the information is being kept confidential.

Allstate calls the system Drivewise. It’s known as TrueLane at The Hartford. I’ve had both as I changed insurance carriers in recent years. You can even log onto an online dashboard or console to check the stats for yourself. The charts indicate whether you stopped the car too quickly, accelerated too quickly, drove above what they regard as a safe speed, or otherwise engaged in risky behavior.

Now I am not what you call a really fast driver. I don’t tend to buy cars known for their racing prowess, or their ability to run from zero to 60 in four seconds flat. I tend to be more conservative about such matters, but prefer a vehicle to be reasonably fast, with decent acceleration, at least enough to maintain a fairly high speed while going up a mountainous road. Handling has to be good enough to keep out of trouble, but I don’t test the limits of the Kia’s acceleration capability, which is relatively modest anyway, nor do I find myself engaged in frequent hard breaking except to avoid an obstacle.

So I would think I should score pretty well on the stats produced by those wireless gadgets.

Well, after 0bserving the readouts for my driving during the first two weeks with Drivewise, I had to be shocked. I saw an unusual number of hard breaking and rapid acceleration spikes. Even the two-mile trip to the local Circle K convenience store, where I seldom go faster than 30 or 35 miles per hour, would allegedly trigger frequent episodes of hard breaking. This didn’t make sense, and so I persuaded Allstate to send me another Drivewise module to test after a tech admitted customers sometimes received defective units.

A couple of weeks later, I installed the replacement. Understand I did not in any way change my driving behavior. I’ve been a licensed driver since shortly after I turned 21, and that was several decades ago. But the spikes were no longer displayed. Clearly these modules are sensitive and likely prone to error.

While some time later, after I had switched to The Hartford, I enrolled in their TrueLane program and again monitored my driving behavior with a different though superficially almost identical module. For the most part the trips were the same, being a creature of habit and having a fairly consistent agenda from week to week.

Unfortunately, TrueLane also reported alleged episodes unruly driving behavior on my little trips around town. The same trips, the same speeds, the same basic driving behavior instilled in me for decades, delivered sharp spikes in the readings, worse than Drivewise. So did I get yet another faulty module? Are they all built by the same manufacturer?

So I sent the unit back.

Now this is doubly curious: Before I removed the TrueLane gadget, I had noticed the onset of a strange sort of crackling noise from the steering column sometimes upon making a turn. I had assumed it to be related to some sort of rattle in the dash, and vowed to have the dealer check it out on the next visit. But after the device was unplugged, the symptoms disappeared. The frequent dropouts on the Sirius radio were also less frequent. So these devices may do more than just post misleading profiles of your driving behavior.

These gadgets are all or mostly made by Octo Telematics North America, a company based in Boston and Vista, CA. But the insurance companies no doubt have different, though probably similar priorities in evaluating your driving results. Regardless, I would not want my insurance rates to be based on obtuse black boxes that are thoroughly undependable. Maybe I was just unlucky in getting two defective units out of three. What about you, gentle reader? Would you want your driving behavior to be monitored by some outside party in the hope of keeping your insurance rates low? After this experience, my answer is no way.

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3 Responses to “About Those Insurance Company Black Boxes”

  1. dfs says:

    Before accepting one of these “black boxes” your insurer offers you, you would be well advised to read the fine print on whatever paperwork you are required to sign and make sure that you aren’t being suckered into inadvertently signing away whatever right of privacy you might otherwise have. It would probably be a good idea to do what you can to limit your insurer’s right to whatever data is collected and stored by the bo, in situations where it might not be in your best interest to divulge it such as when you’ve been involved in an accident..

  2. Chuck Goldberg says:

    We installed a TrueLane device on our 2002 Lexus GS300, and immediately were besieged by an obnoxious buzzing noise that has persisted for 2 weeks since unplugging the device. Mechanics seem to be baffled.

    Does anyone out there have an idea???

  3. Franco says:

    OBDII data includes mileage in addition to speed. If they can monitor driving style, they can also see how far you go. How about a plan where your premiums are determined by miles driven? I suspect that would reduce many drivers’ (especially seniors) rates. I kinda doubt the insurance companies would agree to this, but it makes sense, right?

    BTW, in a driving context it’s “braking” not breaking.

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