Becky Yerak
Chicago Tribune

To hear Progressive Corp. Chief Executive Glenn Renwick tell it, insurance “telematics” seem to have hit a speed bump.

When the Mayfield Village-based carrier asked motorists if they’d be willing to install a device that would monitor their driving in exchange for potential discounts of up to 30 percent, about 40 percent of survey takers said “no way in hell,” Renwick recounted during a recent conference call with analysts.

This year’s disclosures that the National Security Agency routinely violated privacy protections for years haven’t helped insurers sell people on the benefits of telematics, such as making insurance pricing more accurate.

In only one year, the percentage of telematics executives who believe that such programs will become widely adopted in the next three years has fallen to 22 percent from 30 percent, said Joe Reifel, an AT Kearney partner, at a telematics conference.

“Actual adoption is a little on the challenging side,” said Deloitte Director Andrew Goldberg.

Most major U.S. insurers currently offer usage-based insurance programs, which track habits such as braking and mileage. Worldwide, subscriptions for driving-monitoring gadgets and apps are expected to grow from nearly 6 million at the end of 2013 to 107 million in 2018, connectivity trends forecaster ABI Research said in June.

Still, there are challenges to participation, mainly related to privacy concerns.

Participation is increasing but “people are scared” and confused, said Theodore Poulos, insurance specialist for the Leech-Bridges Inc. agency in Zion, Ill. So far, about 3 percent of clients have signed up.

“This is not a GPS device,” Poulos said at the Telematics Update conference. He said consumers’ key concern is the device will track their location. “We have to educate the consumer.”

“More people are expressing interest and declining to participate,” said James Kane, president of Hub International Personal Insurance in Chicago.

Pinnacle Actuarial Resources Inc. shared results at the conference of an analysis of about 2,000 sentiments expressed on Twitter about Progressive’s Snapshot telematics device over a recent 10-month period.

People not using Snapshot were the most negative. Their biggest concern was privacy, particularly the belief insurers might track their locations despite assurances the technology monitors only mileage, braking and other driving habits.

The tweets were nearly evenly split between people who weren’t using Snapshot and those who were in various stages of using it. In tone, 55 percent were negative, 26 percent were positive and 19 percent were neutral.

“There’s still an inherent distrust of insurance companies,” said Roosevelt Mosley, a principal at Pinnacle. While telematics have “definite long-term potential,” carriers need to address concerns, Mosley said.

Mosley shared this tweet: “I’m waiting for someone to leak documents showing the NSA can track people with the Progressive Snapshot thing.”

Also deterring consumers is the fear devices such as Snapshot will cause rates to rise if their bad driving habits are discovered. Frequent hard braking, for example, can hurt a person’s chances of getting a big discount because it suggests careless driving.

Besides braking habits, the discount for Progressive Snapshot users is also influenced by how many miles are logged each day and how often policyholders drive between midnight and 4 a.m. Generally, savings are greater the less mileage people rack up, and the fewer number of times they drive in the wee hours, which is a more dangerous time to be on the road.

Progressive and other insurers, however, have assured policyholders that the devices won’t be used to penalize them, only to reward good driving behaviors.

Jon Inquimboy, product manager for Esurance, said privacy concerns are overblown. He said consumers are “generally intelligent and reasonable” and “have a reasonable expectation that insurers will keep their information safe.” He said Esurance, which is owned by Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Corp., keeps such information secure. Allstate has a regional office in Hudson.

“All of the attention around the NSA is grossly romanticized by the media,” Inquimboy said at the conference.

Progressive said it has found that about 30 percent of motorists would be open to trying telematics programs, while 30 percent said they need more information, Renwick told analysts last month.

Progressive, whose telematics efforts date to 1999, has said that 1.6 million policyholders have enrolled in its usage-based insurance program. That represents more than 10 percent of its policies. It says it has seen evidence that people who use the device have fewer and less severe accidents, which in turn reduces its claims costs.

Still, the company is “trying to find the message that actually moves the needle” in increasing participation, Renwick said. “We now understand how significant a burden it is to try to educate consumers to do something” that isn’t part of the “natural buying” process.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners said in May that it expects 20 percent of U.S. vehicle insurance to incorporate some form of telematics within five years. A factor is that today’s younger generations are more accustomed to publicly sharing personal information on social media and therefore will be less concerned about privacy issues involving insurance telematics.

Allstate’s device is called Drivewise. Allstate CEO Tom Wilson told analysts that it has a “high acceptance rate” and that 44,000 policyholders are enrolling each month. A third of new policyholders sign up, an Allstate spokesman said; he didn’t have a figure on how many of the 44,000 are sticking with the program.