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Road Sage

Telematics: Big Brother is behind the wheel Add to ...

Do you have curtains on your windows? If you do, it’s probably because you want some privacy. You don’t want strangers being privy to your life. You understand that human beings require space and time that is ours alone. We need privacy.

Well, you can chuck those notions into the recycling bin along with your empty vodka bottles and dreams of a democracy. Our private lives began evaporating with the introduction of the mobile phone and now car manufacturers and insurance companies are coming for what’s left.

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They call it “telematics” – a fancy word for spying. Here’s how it works. You voluntarily have high-tech sensors installed in your car that allows your insurance company to monitor your driving – acceleration, speed, braking – in real time. It’s a form of usage-based insurance (UBI) that’s also known as pay-as-you-drive (PAYD). The insurance company collects and analyzes this data and, if you’re a good little boy, you a get lower rate. How much? They aren’t saying but I’d wager it’s at least a few grand.

What a deal! Imagine. Your insurance company gets a detailed account of every journey you take, where you go and how you got there, and you save a little less than a hundred dollars a month. How can you pass it up?

While it may seem new, telematics have been around for a while (the GPS is an early example). In 1990, EU experts predicted telematics would one day render speed limits obsolete. In Italy, where UBI was introduced in 2006, insurance companies are legally compelled to offer lower rates to drivers who opt to have telematic devices. UBI is now offered by more than half of insurance companies in the United States, most notably State Farm and Progressive. Canada is looking to join the party, as was reported in this newspaper last week. A few insurers are trying it out.

The first group of drivers targeted for UBI surveillance are those 25 years old and younger – the scapegoats of the western world. They’re easy picking. Got a problem? Blame the young, particularly young males. They get in accidents and they’ve got attitude. It doesn’t matter that, for instance, many drunk drivers are senior citizens who rationalize their booze cruises by claiming their decades of drunk driving makes them good it.

Like most forms of oppression, the argument for spying on young drivers is that it’s good for them. They are most at risk for accidents and can use the data collected to become better drivers. Perhaps. But car insurers have yet to explain why giving feedback to teenage drivers requires car insurance companies to own all their private information and, in the foreseeable future, possibly sell it to the highest bidder.

A cynic might argue that car insurers are going after young drivers because those poor kids already have an eroded sense of privacy. They have no concept of a time when credit card companies and Internet providers didn’t have easy access to their innermost communications. Why not surrender your freedom of movement to electronic scrutiny for a few thousand bucks?

Price. That’s the pitch for usage-based insurance. In the United Kingdom, for instance, those who sign up can save up to 40 per cent. But the money angle will only go so far. According to the website Telematics Update, insurance companies will soon start bundling telematics with other enticements such as driving lessons. The British company Autostart offers learner drivers a three-month rental car, 40 hours of instruction at the Mercedes Benz Driving Academy and UBI for around $450 a month.

Telematic pay-as-you-drive insurance is voluntary, but it’s important to note that most new cars will be fitted with the technology. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to know that while it may always be “voluntary,” insurance companies will punish any driver who doesn’t place their head in the telematic noose. You’ll either “volunteer” to have a telematic trace on your car or you can pay 10 or 20 times the premiums to drive without one. Only California (a state that understands the ramifications of technology) has made a stand. In 2009, California passed regulations that allow insurers to use only mileage-based UBI. All other information, for instance how you drive or where you drive, is prohibited.

Those in favour of telematics would argue that it’s already happened. Your mobile phone can track your movement and your credit card tells your shopping history. Why should driving be any different? Why shouldn’t your premiums go up if your UBI shows that you drive in neighbourhoods your insurer considers high risk?

Let me answer that one. It may be too late to claim back what’s already been lost, but when you desecrate driving, you’re gutting my soul. Driving is a cornerstone of the North American identity – a noble one – it’s the notion of freedom of movement, that a person can get in his or her car and drive pretty much anywhere. Cars mean movement and movement means freedom. It wasn’t just for the rich. You could get in your car and go. You could drive.

And now they want to monitor our every hard brake or mild speed-limit violation. Who knows how sensitive those sensors will be? Car sex could be out of the question. Totalitarian regimes are known for trying to eliminate freedom of movement and privacy. With telematics they can get both in one go. At this rate, by 2034, we’ll all be sporting microchips that tell our insurance companies whether or not we’ve had a drink, a toke, a cigarette or unprotected sex (or, if we’re lucky, all of the above).

But that’s all conjecture. How is telematics working in practical terms? Why not look at the case of Oliver Pain? His experience is rare but it’s enlightening none-the-less.

According to the Daily Mail, on the evening of Nov. 13, 2012, Pain, an 18-year-old from Derbyshire in the United Kingdom, was driving home in his Renault Clio with his friend, 17-year-old Harry Smith. At 10:42, Pain lost control of his car. It came off the road and hit two trees. Both he and his passenger died.

An investigation revealed the teen was speeding – doing 74 mph in a 60 mph zone. You see, he was a new driver (with a good record) and his car was fitted with a GPS telematics box, the kind that track a motorist’s driving in exchange for lower rates. Oliver’s UBI plan, the Daily Mail reported, had a curfew that restricted him to driving between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. The coroner determined that “Mr. Pain's rush to beat his curfew was a very significant factor in his driving.”

In other words, Oliver Pain died because he was speeding home to avoid violating the telematic curfew that had been put in place to save him.

Privacy may be dying.

At least we know that irony will always survive.

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

Send your automotive maintenance and repair questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

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