Drivers in a pilot project that monitors their every automotive operating habit is seen by some as willingly swapping privacy for insurance discounts.
For two months this year, Minnesotan Jacob Sevlie's insurance company tagged along whenever he slid behind the wheel of his Honda Accord.
A monitor the size of a matchbook electronically tracked his driving time and behavior. If he had a heavy foot or was a sudden braker, the auto data recorder would betray him.
Disconnected from the car and hooked to a personal computer, the device relayed Sevlie's digital driving diary to his auto insurer, Progressive Corp., with a mere click of a mouse.
Sevlie voluntarily signed up for the test program and sent in monthly data in hopes of saving on his insurance bill. In return, he got a $25 stipend and the promise of a 15 percent rate cut when the program launches.
And now, Progressive, based in Mayfield Village, Ohio, is promising discounts of up to 25 percent as it expands the so-called TripSense pilot program to 5,000 Minnesota customers. Sevlie, a Bloomington resident, is among them.
Progressive says it will use the data only for potential discounts, not to penalize customers whose devices reveal risky driving habits.
The monitoring has the potential to cascade through the insurance industry, said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota.
"What happens is Progressive does this and gets a little bit of market-share growth because they've lowered prices," Samuelson said. "Then it gets copied by other insurance companies. Pretty soon, you don't have any choice: You have to surrender all that data to insurance companies or they won't insure you."
Company spokesman William Perry says use of the auto data recorder will not be mandatory for Progressive customers.
"The key thing for us regarding the privacy aspect is that the program is completely voluntary," he said. "It's not imposed on anybody."
Julie Rochman, a spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association, denied suggestions that the entire industry would adopt the monitors. Most insurers, she said, are comfortable with their current systems for measuring risk, which typically lump drivers into groups based on a variety of factors.
"The bottom line is this is interesting, and they'll watch it," she said. "I'm not aware of any rush to do this kind of thing."
As it is, drivers are already under increased surveillance by insurance companies and others. For example, cameras at intersections in many urban areas snap license-plate pictures of vehicles running red lights.
Many automakers already install the so-called black box that records information for investigations into a crash or malfunction, although data is not routinely transmitted. Last month, federal safety officials called on all automakers to install such devices.