‘Spy car’ worries raised by new Allstate patent

Becky Yerak
Chicago Tribune

If, while driving, you were also chowing down food, yakking on your phone or getting distracted by the Labrador retriever, would your insurance company know?

A patent issued in August to Allstate mentions using sensors and cameras to record “potential sources of driver distraction within the vehicle (e.g. pets, phone usage, unsecured objects in vehicle).” It also mentions gathering information on the number and types of passengers — whether adults, children or teenagers.

And the insurer, based in suburban Chicago, isn’t just interested in the motoring habits of its own policyholders.

Underscoring companies’ interest in collecting and analyzing information on you, also known as big data, the patent also envisions gathering information on nearby cars so it can compare its policyholder’s habits to other motorists in the area. The patent, called “traffic-based driving analysis,” is for a server that will receive driving behavior data from sensors, cameras and other devices.

“So my car spies on me and on other drivers near me?” Bob Hunter, insurance director for the Consumer Federation of America and a former Texas insurance commissioner, said after reviewing the patent. “Even if I give permission for this intrusive technology, my car spies on unsuspecting passengers and even on unsuspecting pedestrians or cars passing by?”

Hunter wondered about the “liability for that intrusiveness” as well as the potential to pick up such sensitive data as ATM PINs. It’s “the invasion of the spy car,” he said.

Allstate said it filed the new patent a few years ago. Company spokeswoman Laura Strykowski said the “technology would provide drivers with broader information about traffic conditions and external factors that could better equip them to drive safe.”

It’s at least the second patent in recent months that the insurer has been issued related to connected cars. In June, Allstate received a patent for a driving-behavior database it said might be useful for health insurers, lenders, credit-rating agencies, marketers and potential employers. That patent also said the invention has the potential to evaluate such physiological data as heart rate, blood pressure and electrocardiogram signals that could be recorded from steering-wheel sensors.

In May, Allstate floated the idea of possibly selling policyholders’ driving data, and in doing so held up Google as Exhibit A. “There are a lot of people monetizing data today,” Allstate Chief Executive Tom Wilson said at a conference. Searching on Google, for example, “seems like it’s free, but it’s not free,” he said. “You’re giving them your information, and they sell your information.” Wilson then raised the question of whether Allstate could or should “sell this information we get from people driving around to various people and capture some additional profit and, perhaps, give a better value proposition to our customers that we’re not giving today?”

Long-term, car insurers’ business models are under pressure. Questions have been raised about the industry’s long-term viability given increasingly safe cars. Also, with vehicles getting more connected, some have also wondered whether Google and Apple could pose threats to car insurers, which traditionally have gathered their own loss data and kept it in-house.

Allstate’s August patent adds several other physiological measures to the list of possible characteristics to collect: the driver’s eye and head positions and the “physical or mental state of the driver, such as fatigue or intoxication,” which could be determined by “sensors that detect the content of alcohol in the air or blood-alcohol content of the driver, such as a breathalyzer.” The database could also include audio that could pick up a cranked-up stereo or animated passengers, the patent said.

Allstate and other insurers are increasingly using information gleaned from technology, typically plug-in devices or smartphone apps, to score the driving habits of policyholders, who in exchange get the chance to qualify for discounts on their insurance. The programs are voluntary but have evolved from analyzing braking habits and time of day driven, to looking at physiological characteristics and now maybe even nearby drivers with the possibility of selling the data.

The patent describes a computer system or a computer program, or hardware or software, or a combination of the two. The sensors and cameras could transmit the data to “external computer systems,” the patent said.

The accompanying charts include plans to track other vehicles’ driving patterns.

“In a particular flow of traffic, if most or all of the cars are speeding, then it might be safer for a driver to drive within the flow of traffic than to drive at the speed limit,” Allstate said in its patent. “Similarly, an occurrence of sudden swerving or braking by a vehicle may indicate a high risk or unsafe driving behavior by a driver not paying attention to the road, but if many cars on the same road at or near the same time also brake or swerve suddenly,” it could mean that there’s a fallen tree or disabled vehicle.