For the past six months, I signed up to participate in Progressive’s Snapshot Discount program, which offers a device that you attach to your car that transmits data about your driving activity. The results and the impact of the Snapshot might surprise you. In this review, you’ll be better informed if you wish to take part in the monitoring program.
When I signed up for the discount program, I didn’t understand precisely how the program worked, but after a month, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons that any insured driver should know about these devices.
“Save up to 30 percent,” exclaimed the advertisements featuring the annoying-but-memorable Flo from Progressive, who pitches the company’s Snapshot Discount. I figured why not try it out and see if the discounts are as good as they claim. I was in a rush purchasing insurance for my 2014 Mustang so I could drive it off the dealer’s lot, so I didn’t fully research the Snapshot before clicking the inviting checkbox.
What’s the worst that could happen? I figured even with my driving behavior, a few percent off would be worth the experiment. I was conflicted because then I was now assigning a price for my privacy – how much is it worth? You’ll see towards the end of this post.
After the first week of owning my Snapshot device, I grew to strongly dislike it. However, the idea of having access to my driving activity did pique my curiosity. Once you’re in, you should finish up the “term” of the program otherwise your rates are subject to increase based on the short period of data they collected on you. I’ll share the data that the Snapshot collected on me to help you understand how the Snapshot program works.
Ask any Snapshot driver about what they don’t like about the program. When they hear the “BEEP-BEEP-BEEP” produced from the device, they know exactly what happened. It means they just got ratted out to Progressive for slowing down just a little too fast.
What is the Snapshot Device?
The Snapshot device is a small module that you plug into your On-Board Diagnostics Type 2 (OBD-II) port on your car. The OBD-II system allows automotive technicians to diagnose vehicle activities and has access to practically every sub-system on your car: engine, drivetrain, brakes, transmission, electronics — you name it, it can be acquired through OBD-II.
The Snapshot device has a lot of electronics packed in its 2” X 3” size. It has a memory chip, cellular radio and a GPS radio that communicates with satellites for location tracking. You can inspect the patent to see what it has under the hood. The Snapshot device continuously streams your vehicle’s data to Progressive’s servers while driving. For my device, it has a quad-band GSM module (datasheet), which makes sense considering Progressive inked a deal with AT&T to provide data service for it.
On Progressive’s website, they disclose that they track vehicle speed, but not location data. This is by choice, not by physical limitations. It is no different from a cellphone that is connected through the AT&T network. They do not explain exactly what vehicle data they track – are they also monitoring RPMs and throttle-position? We may never know, but it is safe to say that in principle, they can track all data.
Since I originally joined, they updated their suggestions for who benefits the most from the Snapshot program. Of special note, this information is not presented to non-customers. Only customers can see this information once they are authenticated into their account portal. Their FAQs on the program definitely paint a rosier picture, too.
Also, the terms and conditions of the Snapshot Discount program are nowhere to be found until you agree to them. But, I’ll save you the time hunting for it on their site (since it’s not shown to non-customers). Here is a direct link to the Snapshot Terms & Conditions. This is one set of T&Cs that you don’t want to skip. Moving on …
As a part of my agreement to participate in the program, is a stern warning to not reverse-engineer, disassemble or otherwise manipulate the device. I didn’t. But it wouldn’t be too difficult to examine exactly what data is passing through it. Maybe if I can get my hands on one of those Stingray scanners, I could intercept the cellular data being passed over the air. But one doesn’t have to go to that extent – the OBD-II protocol is fairly open and can allow monitoring the data being passed between the port and the device, a classic MITM attack. I digress.
How Progressive Snapshot Penalizes You
The Snapshot device appears to only snitch on you with two types of data. First is the reduction of speed (braking), which I’ll explain next. Second is the time of day, which is acquired the moment you start your car. Whether or not the vehicle is in motion, data is logged. (I started my car after tinkering under the hood in the middle of the night once and it registered that I was “driving” at 11PM, a high-risk period.)
Surprisingly, vehicle velocity and acceleration don’t get flagged. In theory, drag racing wouldn’t ding you. But, as you rapidly decelerate, you would get dinged. While I’m on the topic, let’s talk about false positives.
You have to understand how the device interprets spinning tires (or burnouts). This isn’t just for spirited drivers, but for anyone who lives in an area with ice, unpaved or wet roads. When your tires are spinning, they spin at a higher rate of speed than the vehicle and once they catch traction, they rapidly slow down. To the Snapshot device, this appears like an abrupt braking, even without the brake pedal pressed. This is because the vehicle speed sensor is often located in the transmission, so if the tires are spinning, so is the driveshaft. Thus why your speedometer would show you’re going 40 MPH while remaining stationary.
The Futility of Hard Braking
To Progressive, a hard brake is defined as any condition where the vehicle decelerates faster than 7 MPH per second. You don’t necessarily have to be pressing the brake – a driver could be coasting up an incline on a mountain to improve fuel efficiency. I can’t confidently say if there are speed thresholds at which this is triggered; however based on my experience, it is consistent at any speed.
It’s my belief that the threshold of 7MPH is impractical for all conditions. It’s a linear rule that doesn’t account for inertia and other laws of physics. Driving in an urban city – I wish you luck – you will inevitably trigger Hard Brakes daily. After I understood this threshold, I avoided slowing down faster than 10MPH per second, and would watch my speedometer compulsively. This worked effectively to curb my hard brakes.
Supporting my rationale for why I believe 7MPH per second (10.27 feet per second) is an inaccurate measurement of “safety”, consider these typical vehicle scenarios:
- At 75MPH (110 feet per second), to reduce down to 25MPH (36.67 feet per second), you would need a minimum of 7.1 seconds to slow down.
- At 75 MPH (110 feet per second), to come to a complete stop, you will require a minimum of 11 seconds to slow down.
- At 45MPH (66 feet per second), to come to a complete stop (such as doing a left turn), you will require 6.4 seconds to slow down.
Why do these scenarios matter? It’s to demonstrate that reducing a vehicle’s velocity safely depends greatly on the originating speed. The constant that remains the same is the length of roadway between you and a given threat (such as new vehicles entering the roadway). One could understand that in the city, you’re faced with more frequent, less-severe threats than on a highway. But on the highway, threats can be more prolific and less predictable (e.g., rush hour).
The counterpoint to this argument is that if you give yourself enough space between you and the vehicle in front of you, you can reasonably stay within the thresholds of the Snapshot device and still achieve your driving goals. But the real-world impact is that you may occasionally “miss your turn” to avoid triggering the Snapshot. However, I can give a slight nod to the conjecture that if a driver is able to control their braking, it can be a reflection of their overall awareness of changing road conditions.
Which brings me to my next point – gaming the system.
Beating the Snapshot System
Now that you know what data the Snapshot device looks for and the difficulty in driving without triggering a penalty, you probably want to figure out how to play the game. As they say, “don’t hate the player; hate the game.” Or in this case, play the game effectively.
The discount that Progressive offers relates to the number of hard brakes you incur, the time that you drive at night and the number of miles you drive. Racking up more miles is the easiest, controllable factor to beat the system. The hard brake-to-mile ratio is really what they’re looking for when determining the discount for your policy.
In other words, you can either adjust your braking behavior, or you can add more miles to the data to win with the law of averages.
Using Snapshot Against You
When opting into the Snapshot program, you also let Progressive to use the data they recorded against you in the event of a claim. For a majority of people, this won’t be a problem, but it should at least a little concerning that you are giving your insurance company full control to use the data to adversely impact the outcome of your claim or policy premiums. Hypothetically, if you were going faster than the posted speed limit at the time of a claim, how do you think that will fare in your defense? This concern goes both ways; you can use the data to support your claim if you were driving safely.
The spirit of this policy is that it’s likely intended to reduce fraudulent claims and equitably assign responsibility to all parties.I don’t know about you, but if I was involved in an at-fault accident, I’d promptly remove the Snapshot device from public view so the other party doesn’t see it and won’t be compelled to subpoena the records. That data is only for me and my insurance company.
It’s not always bad, though. The data can be incredibly useful in the event you are wrongfully accused of a crime. This man in Cleveland was found innocent of murder because of the data collected with his Progressive Snapshot.
Snapshot is a Behavior Modification Tool
After my six month use of Snapshot, I’ve concluded that it’s most effective at helping drivers become more aware of their vehicle, driving conditions and slowing gracefully to a stop. It took me roughly a couple of months to retrain my driving behavior.
And it worked. After a few months, I no longer consciously determine if my Snapshot device will ding me for slowing down because now I slow down earlier than normal. I’ll admit that I’ve gunned it on yellow lights when it was safe and prudent – but the occasional moment of indecision has since faded.
Considering that the device reminds the driver they just got penalized through their audible beeps, the driver will eventually adjust their behavior. The negative stimulus is the annoying beep. The positive stimulus is the prospect of a discount. It’s Pavlovian by nature.
How Much Did I Save with Snapshot Discount?
(Spoiler: I didn’t.)
For my first month, I was a “terrible” driver in the eyes of the Snapshot. This is problematic because Progressive puts drivers in a 30-day “probationary” period where they evaluate your behavior and your initial discount for the remaining five months.
I saved one percent. Yes, $5.46. That was how much my privacy was worth. Following my six-month period, I earned a 12 percent discount, or about $96. For you mathematicians, you might have noticed that my percentage discount is not based on the same principal amount. This signaled to me that I should dig deeper.
Did I really “save” $96? I read my Declarations pages to see the accounting.
My rates increased. I don’t know if this is due to the data Progressive Snapshot has collected, but they quietly increased my base premiums while deducting my good driving behavior from the Snapshot. I know there can be multiple factors for premium increases, but the correlation discomforts me. As my vehicle depreciates, I can only presume that premiums decrease accordingly. Not so, indicates Progressive. See for yourself …
Original Premiums with Progressive ($741)
Six-month Renewal Premiums with Progressive ($836)
As I surmised, Progressive increased my premiums by $95. One dollar shy of my discount of $96. Clever accounting. In full disclosure, I receive more discounts, but this is my base policy premiums. The discounts stayed the same. Thus, my privacy is worth one dollar, which is roughly 16 cents per month.
In conclusion, with Snapshot you might receive a vanity discount on your insurance at the cost of an increased premium in your next renewal.
Data Provided from the Progressive Snapshot Program
I’ll give you a brief tour of the Snapshot reports shown on the Progressive website for customers. This isn’t published in their marketing materials, so you’ll know what to expect with the Snapshot program.
Discounts from the Snapshot Program:
Weekly Trip Averages Report (AKA, “This week compared to my overall average.”)
Note that the data for my last seven days is disabled due to my completion of the Snapshot program.
Daily Trip Details Log (Final week of Snapshot)
Daily Trip Details Log (First Week of Snapshot)
Trip Detail Report (Example: Driving from Tucson to Phoenix)
Interesting Insights from the Snapshot Program
Progressive doesn’t really go far in terms of explaining the significance or relevance of the data. That’s up to you and their underwriters to interpret. So, I took it upon myself to export the data from my account (not easy) and do a little analysis in Excel. All data is measured from the six months between January and June.
- I was able to better manage my driving behavior after approximately 70 days.
- Hard Brakes can be offset with “good” miles.
- Since my commute changed from city streets to a highway, I was able to avoid hard-brake scenarios.
- I achieved an 11% discount concluding my six-month term.
Hard Brake to Mileage Ratio
What was that peak on February 4th? It was me doing brake stands (burnouts) and I was trying to figure out how to disable Traction Control on my 2014 Mustang. Eventually, I figured it out.
It’s evident that the first 30 days of using Snapshot are difficult. At least it was for me. Had I known the real impact of each hard brake, I would be even more intentional about avoiding them. Now (you and) I know better, so we can more easily adapt to these driving monitoring devices.
I do have one prevailing concern. Currently, these devices are voluntary. Progressive and State Farm offer potential discounts for using them. I anticipate that the ROI of this data is far more valuable than what insurance companies let on through discounting. I worry that in the not-too-distant future, they will be mandatory and drivers will be penalized for opting out of their monitoring.
For privacy advocates out there, this system is disturbing. Especially since all the National Security Agency (NSA) controversies involving surreptitiously monitoring American citizens, this gives law enforcement agencies one more tool to track its citizens. Armed with rubber-stamped ‘Approved’ and ‘Under Seal’ subpoenas from secret FISA courts, Progressive and AT&T need to comply with monitoring a vehicle’s whereabouts. It’s not just the NSA — local law enforcement has access to specialized equipment, such as Stingrays, to monitor cellular traffic without user’s consent. (Remember, the Snapshot device has a cellular modem and a SIM card identifying the individual device. Review the patent here!)
Overall, the intent of the Snapshot program accomplished its stated mission. It helped me become a safer driver. I don’t agree with all aspects of the program, but considering it’s relatively young, I think the company is still modifying it to suit their needs.
What would I like to see from Progressive in the future? I’d like to know my driving performance compared to other drivers in my state and vehicle. Nest offers this – by allowing users to compare their energy consumption compared to peers in the same state and abroad. These insights cater to the very human psychology to encourage and positively reward good behavior. Progressive has the data — they just need to use it to further educate customers. I’d also like to know precisely what types of data are being collected, retained or discarded. Even if it was technical, I would appreciate that over vague summaries of the program.
If you find that you routinely drive slow, don’t do burnouts, don’t drive in slippery conditions, don’t make short trips or drive only in rural areas, then the Snapshot is fantastic for you. Otherwise, pass up on the tempting offer to sell your privacy for a dollar.
I leave you with my final thought on the Progressive Snapshot:
The feeling of unplugging my Snapshot from Progressive feels like a dog getting its collar removed.
— Joe Manna (@JoeManna) June 21, 2014
This post is a part of my 60 days of blogging. Read more about #60DOB.
Photo credit: robertnelson
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