Data-for-Doughnuts Vision Inspires Auto Insurers to Chase Google

Allstate's Usage-based Insurance Product
Allstate's usage-based insurance product, Drivewise, gets installed into a car's Onboard Diagnostic Port, near the steering column in most cars. Source: Allstate via Bloomberg

The restaurants and doughnut shops that you pass on your commute would love to predict when you’ll be driving by. Your auto insurer may already know, and could be looking for a way to profit from that information.

Allstate Corp. Chief Executive Officer Tom Wilson has been talking about eventually selling data to businesses that want to reach the insurer’s policyholders with real-time coupons or promotional materials. That’s similar to the strategy at Google Inc., Wilson said, and would prepare his company for a future in which safer roads mean the customer relationship has to be about more than paying claims.

“There’s a whole bunch of people who look at the insurance industry and say, ‘Oh, it’s sleepy; they’re not really smart,” Wilson said in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York this month. “It’s for us to take them apart.”

Insurers led by Progressive Corp. have been using tracking devices that plug into vehicles to assess risks like how fast their customers drive, what hours they’re on the road and how hard they brake. The companies can then cut rates to help retain safe drivers. The same technology can monitor drivers’ location and could even provide updates on when car owners might need a fresh battery, or a new vehicle.

If insurers want to sell the information, “we would consume it,” Dean Stoecker, the CEO of Alteryx, said in a phone interview. The data-analytics company has more than 700 customers -- including Dunkin’ Donuts, Ford Motor Co., Starbucks Corp., and McDonald’s Corp. -- that can use the information to target ads and develop strategies.

‘No Way in Hell’

Alteryx’s customers want to know “where people are at any point in time, when they pass that billboard on the 405,” Stoecker said, referring to a highway that skirts the coastline in Southern California.

The merchants could reach drivers through computer screens in their cars, apps on their phones or via e-mails before a routine commute.

One challenge for insurers has been convincing customers to share their data, something that Internet users routinely do.

“You get about 40 percent of people saying, ‘No way in hell,’” Progressive CEO Glenn Renwick said in 2013.

At Progressive, “we do not have plans to sell driving data as an additional revenue stream,” Jeff Sibel, a spokesman for the insurer, said by e-mail. “We know customers place a lot of trust in us to protect their data.”

Wilson said that customers will be receptive if there’s something in the deal for them, such as a better price for insurance or discounts from retailers in their path.

‘Boom! I’m In’

“If you say ‘I could save you 10 to 30 percent,’ Boom! I’m in,” Wilson said, describing customer reaction. “If there’s value to it, they’ll be willing to do it.”

Holly Johnson, who shares consumer advice through her Club Thrifty blog, has written about being uneasy with Allstate accumulating her driving data.

“It’s kind of creepy,” the Indiana resident said in a phone interview, adding that she might be willing to forgo some discounts to guard her privacy. “I don’t give out a lot of personal information.”

While Allstate may risk alienating some policyholders or potential customers, the company may be better positioned than Progressive to experiment with auto insurance, said Brett Horn, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. That’s because Allstate is also one of the largest U.S. home insurers and sells life coverage too. Progressive relies more on vehicle policies, though the company expanded this year in residential coverage with the purchase of ARX Holding.

Death Count

Jay Fishman, the CEO of Travelers Cos., told investors in February that he was pleased that his company is diversified. If Travelers had to rely mostly on auto insurance, “I’d be really struggling strategically with that,” he said, citing improvements in road safety.

U.S. fatalities per 100,000 registered vehicles fell to 12.6 in 2012 from more than 21 in 1994, government data show. Improved car technology and the crackdown on drunken driving have helped reduce dangers on the road, a trend that could accelerate.

Fishman and others have said that a continued decline in claims costs will push down premiums, squeezing the industry and its profits. Larger insurers have still prospered over the decades because of growth in the U.S. population and the companies’ ability to use their huge advertising budgets to attract customers.

The risk for even the biggest national companies is that the industry contracts faster than they can take market share from regional rivals. Continued safety improvements and the adoption of autonomous cars could shrink the U.S. auto insurance industry by 60 percent in the next 25 years, according to a KPMG report in June.

“It’s only logical that insurance companies would be looking into this direction” of selling customer records, James Dempsey, executive director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology, said in an interview. “From a business perspective, it’s almost irresponsible to not think about how to use the data.”

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