‘Big Brother’ driving app is a highly informed, unblinking coach

Repulsion gave way to intrigue, intrigue to gratification, and now I’m back to repulsion.

If you signed up for a driver monitoring program through your insurance company then you may know what I’m talking about.

At first, my gut reaction was to refuse any monitoring devices in my personal trucks and car.

“The whole Big Brother thing. We get it,” my car insurance agent said when I first objected to the idea.

But then I thought about the trucking industry and how drivers are constantly monitored relative to how they handle a large Class 8 truck. I thought about my own personal fleet and how my kids and I might measure up when coolly observed and scored by software. Would my daughter outscore my son and me? Would the device unmercifully sting us on every driving error, kill my discount and throw us all into a high-risk pool with increased premiums?

If nothing else, I thought, a program like this would provide good insight into the growing world of driver performance analytics and might lead to a story or two. And, as my agent said, I could always turn off Bluetooth on my phone or just yank out the tracker if I got tired of being watched--okay, maybe watch is too strong a word. More like shrewdly observed based on various metrics that indicate--then again, maybe watch is the right word. 

So 'eye-in-the-sky' paranoia aside, I told him I had changed my mind and would like to give the program a try. In a few days a package showed up with some seemingly benign devices that would connect my three vehicles to my insurance company’s mothership.

The directions were pretty easy: download the company’s driving monitor app on my phone, stick the monitoring device to the windshield of each vehicle and then use the app to set up each device, or beacon as they’re called, for each vehicle. (Each beacon is uniquely identified so that there’s no confusing one vehicle to the next). And then it was off to the races—or rather the grocery store to pick up my other son who’s not quite old enough to drive.

The results of my first drive were pretty good. I got dinged once on speeding and once on phone use. A map on the app showed exactly where each incident took place. I was more careful about subsequent trips and my score improved. An average is calculated based on your last two weeks of driving. Mine was 94 percent in the first two weeks. The app lists scores for acceleration, braking, cornering, speeding and phone use.

My daughter hasn’t had any negative marks yet. That's right. Zero. She always eager to know her score and can’t help but smile knowing that she’s consistently beaten her Dad and her older brother. It reminds me of what C.A.T. Vice President Marc Blanchette told me about the driver performance monitor in his trucks that are equipped with the Hyliion Hybrid System.

“Basically you earn points based off of regenerative braking and doing the right things for the technology and for the environment. You earn different points, so the higher the points total, the better,” Blanchette said. “So they’ve turned it into a bit of a game inside the truck as well.”

While our monitoring system is not as sophisticated, the end-result is the same: each driver in my family wants to get the best score possible and out-perform the other drivers. And so far my son has been dinged several times for speeding. The bad part is that we were both in the pickup at the same time but the beacon defaulted to my phone instead of his so I ended up with the bad score and a two-week average of 90 percent. We’ve since learned our lesson. Bluetooth for the driver’s phone needs to be enabled while the others with the driving app are off.

After being under an actuary’s microscope for the past three weeks, I’m back in that repulsed stage largely because of that drop in my score. But slight paranoia and frustration also play a role. We live outside of city limits where there’s very little traffic on our roads. It’s not uncommon for folks to go over the speed limit. But if you go at least 10mph or more past the speed limit, the app will call you out and your score will drop. Same thing on the highway. There’s no forgiveness for blowing past the speed limit to pass someone or maneuver quickly into the fast lane to give wide berth to a vehicle or trooper parked on the shoulder. Also, my phone’s a total pariah now when I drive. I don’t even touch it at red lights which—I know, I know—is a good thing in the long run.

My current stage of lament reminds me of some good football and wrestling coaches I’ve had. They would push and push and tick us all off at times, but if we complied and followed directions, we were usually better off for it in the long run.

As I get more accustomed to this quiet coach I’ve noticed that we’ve all become much more aware of our driving habits and have made adjustments to keep our scores up which translates to a better premium discount and ultimately safer driving. On the Class 8 side of life where safer driving is even more important, my hat’s off to fleets that reward their drivers for safe driving especially those under the watchful eye of Big Brother.