DOT's plan to turn driving into a real-life computer game

The Department of Transportation is hoping to change drivers’ bad habits with a game-based platform to encourage consumers to drive more safely.

Until the connected car future arrives with its promises of safety and efficiency, we’ll have to contend with roads full of unpredictable human drivers who speed when impatient, get distracted by their phones or delay safety repairs.

The Department of Transportation, however, is hoping to change drivers’ bad habits with research on a game-based platform to incentivize consumers to drive more safely. 

Currently, most insurance companies reward drivers with good records with lower premiums.  There are two problems with that system, said Hillol Kargupta, president of Agnik, the data analytics company for connected cars that received DOT research funding to develop the new platform. 

First, insurance companies tend to classify certain age groups as higher risks based on a simple correlation of age with likelihood of having an accident – without looking at the individual driver.  “The perception is that all teenage drivers are bad drivers or high-risk drivers.  But that may not be the case,” said Kargupta.  “If you’re a very safe driver you shouldn’t be paying a high premium.” It would make more sense, said Kargupta to base an individual’s rate on their actual driving habits.

The second problem with the current system is that the “reward” of lower insurance premiums may be biased toward the past rather than toward encouraging safer behaviors in the future.  “Excellent drivers are going to get most of the incentives,” Kargupta said.  “But the rest of the population [will be] disenfranchised if you do not design your incentives mechanism carefully.”

Agnik’s DOT project – which will be performed in collaboration Harman International, a provider of audio and infotainment services – will attempt to change incentives by creating a system that measures drivers’ on-the-road behaviors and offers direct “gamified” incentives for adopting safer habits.

Are you driving at 50 mph through a school zone?  Do you tend to take a route home at 2 a.m. through a dangerous part of town?

Yes, we’ve all seen the Progressive Insurance ads that offer lower rates to consumer who plug a dongle into their car’s OBD-II port, which is under the steering wheel on all autos manufactured after 1968. But Kargupta says there are other ways besides dongles to get information on driving behaviors, and the types of information that can be collected are growing rapidly.

Data can also be collected from systems being designed into vehicles by some manufacturers.  And Kargupta says that much can be learned from software installed on increasingly powerful smartphones, which have accelerometers and global positioning systems already built in.

Whatever the device, insurers can track the routes taken, how many miles are driven and the speeds at which drivers travel.  Since GPS information is also recorded, insurers can match speeds with locations and can check what the speed limit for each section of road is.

While he acknowledges that consumers might be creeped out by having their every turn tracked and each gunning of the engine recorded, Kargupta said that such concerns aren’t warranted.  “As a part of this project we’re bringing in technology that blends in cryptography,” he said.  “You can actually keep the data encrypted and score it without having to decrypt it.” 

The company is also designing a gamification interface that will encourage consumers to track their driving behaviors and earn points.   Friends and families might form teams and compete with other groups to earn more points.  Just what points can be redeemed for, of course, is up to insurers. 

The idea, Kargupta said, is to increase “social-incentive structures for the individual and also for their friends and family circles, so the world becomes a safer place for all of us.”

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