For some drivers, car insurance can be prohibitively expensive – which is why many have considered the once unthinkable: a black box device that constantly monitors their driving.
It may have a whiff of ‘Big Brother’ about it, yet it rewards motorists with lower premiums. And as insurance costs rise year-on-year, more than 750,000 drivers have taken it on board.
This hasn’t escaped the attention of CityVerve’s road safety lead, Stuart Millward. As the CEO and founder of the InsurTech start-up, Satsafe, he has been keenly interested in what’s called telematics – the method of using trackers to monitor a vehicle’s speed, acceleration and braking, along with other data such as location and the time of day.
Understanding that telematics can give both insurers and individuals a clearer picture of driver performance, Millward is looking to widen the potential of the technology.
“We’re coming from a very different position to insurance companies which promote black box technology on the back of a grudge purchase,” says Millward. “We’re producing a product that is not prescribed and is something you would want to use – a product that is going to add a huge amount of value to people’s lives.”
Satsafe’s black box technology has been developed to be affordable, plug-and-play and easy to use. It’s fitted with a SIM card and collects data before firing it off into the cloud where an algorithm is used to generate a driver score. That information is then shared with the driver, giving constant feedback and monitoring risk.
“It can really help the families of senior drivers,” Millward continues. “Let’s say mum or dad has gone driving and they’re running out of fuel or the battery is low, or let’s say they are suffering early stage dementia and they’re driving on the motorway towards Liverpool when they’re supposed to be heading home to Manchester. This technology can allow families to assist.”
He gives an example of an accident situation, explaining that the accelerometer within the black box device is able to measure g-forces and motion. The device will pick up on the impact and its GPS location. It will also work out if a car is facing backwards when it should be facing forwards. “This gives us an opportunity to contact the driver and ask if they are OK or if they need medical assistance,” Millward says. “In a smart city with limited resources and time, that could prove invaluable.”
This idea is not an entirely new one. In 2015, the European Parliament voted in favour of enforcing eCall technology, which automatically dials Europe’s single emergency number 112 in the event of a serious accident. It’s set to be fitted in all new cars from April 2018 and tells the emergency services exactly where the vehicle is, the time and the direction it is facing. It can even work out if the driver is unconscious.
But Millward says Satsafe goes beyond that by allowing for constant monitoring of a vehicle and its driver. “We want to give family members peace of mind, knowing dad’s gone for a drive and he’s back home safely,” he explains. “At the same time, we want to pinpoint potential problems. Maybe the device will detect a harsh braking event at a junction. If this happens too often, it could indicate someone’s eyesight is failing because they’re not seeing things until the last minute.”
In the short-to-medium term, Millward reckons technology such as Satsafe will bridge a gap between cars that continue to be unmonitored and autonomous vehicles. “There’s a lot of talk about connected, driverless cars,” he says, “but it’s going to take a long, long time until we see the real tangible benefits of those vehicles.”
By placing the emphasis on the driver and allowing an app to gather a score, he says we can learn to be better drivers instead. “We want to involve drivers and get them to understand how they can influence the score which appears on their app,” Millward adds.
And while his company is currently seeking senior driver volunteers to test drive the technology, it is already being used in Manchester, with taxi companies monitoring their fleets and getting a better grip on how their cars are being driven.
“This helps the taxi companies because they can go to their insurer at renewal time and get a lower premium because they are seen as responsible,” Millward says. Satsafe has also started a safety partnership in Liverpool: its TelematiCam records high definition video and allows drivers, the emergency services and insurers to better assess the cause of a crash.
As for claims that it’s ‘Big Brother’ in nature, Millward is dismissive. “There are very strict privacy regulations and the data can only be used if a criminal offense has occurred and someone is seriously injured or killed,” he says. “When people say it’s a bit ‘Big Brother’ we say that it’s more about ensuring that your heap of metal and plastic is able to move safely around our communities.”
Even so, it’s still early days and Satsafe continues to explore the possibilities. “Version two is looking at gathering data from dashcam footage and using it to identify problems on the roads,” Millward says. “Maybe there’s an ongoing problem at a stretch of road. We could discover that a sign is in the wrong place or it’s blown over or the road layout is wrong. This kind of technology can identify problems at all kinds of levels.”