|Retention is the key to the imminent rise of usage-based insurance. More accurate rating and customer acquisition may be the immediate motivations for insurance companies, but only customer retention has the power to transform the industry – and reduce carbon emissions in the process.
These conclusions were clear from the Telematics Update Insurance Telematics event two weeks ago in Chicago. Returning home from the event, though, I was soon inundated with the daily tidal wave of car insurance advertisements on U.S. television. The multiple offers of the deepest discounts, lowest deductibles and superior service seemed like far more relevant messages to me as a consumer than the proposition of allowing the insurance company to monitor my driving behavior.
Allowing an insurance company to monitor my behavior, to me, sounds like a particular circle of Hell inconceivable to even the vivid imagination of Dante. What I was forgetting in this kneejerk reaction is the equal and opposite force within me (or most consumers I presume) that is powerfully drawn to any discount – no matter how small – particularly if it is associated with cheaper car insurance – a product one pays handsomely for and hopes never to use. (Because if you use it you may lose it or end up paying more for it in the future.)
The offers on television from Progressive, Nationwide, AllState, State Farm, Farmers and others addressed all of my concerns as a consumer. There were discounted rates earned by parents extended to teenage children. There were deductibles that decline over time when there are no claims. There were offers to top competing discounts. UBI insurance offers the prospect of cutting through the advertising clutter with a message that has the power to draw in new drivers while making them long-term committed subscribers in the process.
On the surface, usage-based insurance looks like an expensive proposition (for the insurer) built around the concept of providing discounts to an insurance company’s best customers, according to multiple presenters at the Insurance Telematics event. So let me get this straight: As an insurer I am going to spend millions of dollars to create a data acquisition and management system and deploy wireless monitoring devices all so I can charge my customers less money?
It truly sounds crazy, until one understands the challenges of providing insurance. (No tears, please.) The insurance industry has few reliable tools to offer consumers proper insurance rates. What to the consumer appears to be a generally expensive product is priced based on an opaque process based on age, gender and location and a limited amount of driving history such as infractions, accidents and mileage.
The industry was recently revolutionized by the deployment of credit scoring as a rating tool. Not surprisingly, credit bureaus featured prominently among attendees at the Insurance Telematics event. Credit scores, the early insurance company pioneers such as Progressive discovered, were an excellent segmentation tool and proxy for assessing risk. Possessing a more accurate tool for determining risk meant that underwriters using this tool could confidently justify deeper discounts than competitors and they won truckloads of business as a result.
Of course, competitors soon learned about the new risk proxy and all companies began using credit scores for segmentation and risk analysis. Usage-based insurance is the new proxy and insurance companies are wary of missing a competitive advantage.
From presentations at the event it is clear that the early movers in UBI insurance have learned that the process must be as simple as possible. As a result, Progressive has shifted from an OBDII plug-in device that had to be removed and connected to a consumer’s computer, to a wireless module the customer can plug in and forget. (Progressive has already moved on to the next incarnation as well, read on.)
Similarly, Octo Telematics, the European pioneer of UBI insurance with more than 1M subscribers via multiple insurance partners, has introduced a device that clamps onto a car battery. This is an alternative to a device that was professionally (and expensively) installed on the vehicle and provided additional services such as stolen vehicle recovery.
Multiple exhibitors at Insurance Telematics touted Bluetooth-based or cellular-based OBDII connections for extracting vehicle data – including Directed Electronics, Zoomsafer, Telenor, Walsh Wireless, Numerex, SmartDrive, Scope Technologies, Matrix Technologies, Xact Technologies and Octo Telematics. (Attendees actively discussed word of legal action between Hughes Telematics and insurance and device providers and others over the use of wireless technology for acquiring vehicle data via the OBDII port. Some companies are reported to have settled with Hughes or, as in the case of Progressive, countersued. Suffice it to say that the intellectual property underpinnings of insurance telematics are unresolved.)
The powerful interest of consumers in obtaining discounted insurance taken together with the newfound ability of insurance companies to offer discounts based on more accurate risk segmentation is the motivating force behind a revolution poised to sweep the industry. But why is there little or no advertising of UBI insurance in the U.S. when Progressive has been in the game for 12 years? (European advertising of UBI insurance is widespread.)
The answer is simple: The insurance industry is governed by 50 different state authorities, some of whom, such as Pennsylvania, have challenged the rating models and others that simply haven’t made their final ruling. (Pennsylvania withheld approval based on their requirement that Progressive disclose the details of there rating model.) Progressive’s SnapShot product is currently available in 23 states.
Another learning from the early UBI movers has been that the device need not be indefinitely installed in the vehicle. Insurers active in UBI have learned that a limited time (ie. one month? six months?) “snapshot” of a driver’s driving behavior is sufficient to assess risk and applicable discount. The SnapShot approach also means the device can be removed and plugged into another customer's vehicle for yet another driver assessment.
Of course, this same snapshot is also key to determining which drivers qualify – and insurers have found that not all drivers are suited to UBI programs. As speakers at the Insurance Telematics event repeatedly said: Everyone thinks they are an above-average driver, but only 50% of those can be correct.
The key to success in UBI insurance will be to move early. Insurers feel an overpowering need to deploy systems absolutely as quickly as they can because the likelihood is that the first module a customer installs will be his or her last. Once the insurer learns that customer’s driving behavior and can accurately and affordably underwrite their risk, the customer is unlikely to switch insurers. The competing insurer will always be at a disadvantage, not knowing the customer’s driving behavior.
For this reason, the industry is struggling to move very quickly in the U.S. in spite of the state regulators and IP issues. UBI has the ability to change the balance of power in the industry and no company wants to be left disarmed.
This battle has just begun. Insurers are likely to package offerings built around comprehensive portfolios of driver services such as roadside assistance, navigation and maybe even stolen vehicle recovery to say nothing of on-scene claims reporting – all built around the modules they are bringing to cars.
UBI insurance will not only transform the insurance underwriting industry, it also has the potential to alter the relationships between insurers and OEMs. Insurers that deploy telematics systems are in a position to threaten OEM relationships with their own dealers and consumers.
Wireless carriers too have skin in the game as insurance applications are already deployed to mobile phone platforms. Insurance companies have powerful leverage over the customer and cannot be ignored by any of these parties and the mobile phone is an alternative path for a UBI deployment.
UBI insurance will rapidly achieve ubiquity nationwide. The prospect of obtaining discounts based on driving behavior will lead to some actual improvements in driving behavior but, mainly, it will contribute to a reduction in driving activity overall, which may be the best outcome of UBI deployment. In the end, the insurance industry will achieve the road charging objective of reducing carbon emissions (a Federal goal) which will forever be politically beyond the reach of Federal authorities.
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