* Other insurers' customers can trial for 30 days
* Roughly 70 percent qualify for discounts
* Consultant says tracking will ultimately be the norm
By Ben Berkowitz
July 9 Progressive Corp already has hundreds of thousands of auto insurance customers who willingly let the company track their driving behavior in exchange for the chance at substantial discounts, and on Monday the company opened the door to competitors' clients as well.
Progressive, the fourth-largest U.S. auto insurer, said it would open its "Snapshot" usage-based insurance program to anyone who wanted to track how well they drive.
Based on 30 days of driving data, people can earn a prospective discount on their insurance premiums, which Progressive would then apply if the user decides to become a customer. Historically, the insurer said, roughly 70 percent of people who sign up for the program end up earning a discount.
The Snapshot device, which plugs into a port in cars built after 1996, tracks behavior like miles driven, braking patterns and even what time of day a car is used. The new trial program will be available in 35 of the 42 states where Progressive currently offers the service to its existing clients.
The company, which has already analyzed more than 5 billion driven miles, says its driving-behavior data is twice as good as any other factor in predicting risk, and that loss costs for bad drivers turn out to be roughly 2.5 times higher than they are for good drivers.
Yet even for the highly competitive auto insurance market, Progressive's move is aggressive. The company claims it is the first time drivers can objectively compare the rate they would be charged with the rate they currently pay their carrier.
"With the test drive of Snapshot, you do the 30 days, you're not a customer, you can just see what your discount is," said Richard Hutchinson, general manager of usage-based insurance for Progressive.
Already a heavy advertiser via the persona of the perky sales clerk "Flo," Progressive is planning what Hutchinson called "a big, big campaign in all dimensions" to promote the expansion of the program.
"Flo will be everywhere," Hutchinson said. SNL Financial recently ranked Progressive as the fourth-largest advertiser in the property insurance industry, spending more than $500 million on media in 2011.
One of the most obvious fears for consumer advocates is the possibility that insurers would use the data they gather from technology like "Snapshot" to raise rates on customers, especially as Progressive's peers move to catch up with the insurer and launch their own usage-based programs.
But one industry consultant recently said it will likely end up being another way around - customers will have to pay extra to not be tracked by their insurer, given how aggressively the industry is expanding in that direction.
"Whatever the math will say the rates will have to start going up on the rest of it," said Robin Harbage, global marketing and sales leader for consultancy Tower Watson's auto insurance practice, in an interview that pre-dated the Progressive announcement.
"It's almost inevitable that the people who aren't using will have to pay more because the people who are the best drivers are being self-selected into these programs."
The technology also has the strong backing of environmentalists. A 2010 MIT study bankrolled by the Conservation Law Foundation found converting all Massachusetts drivers to a mileage-based insurance platform would reduce accident costs and fuel consumption by 9.5 percent.