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AI-Powered Driving Apps Can Track Your Every Move

The apps, which provide data to insurance companies, are raising privacy concerns.

James Jackson

Image: Guy Torsher

Forecast is a series exploring the future of AI and automation in a variety of different sectors—from the arts to city building to finance—to find out what the latest developments might mean for humanity's road ahead. We'll hear from Nikolas Badminton, David Usher, Jennifer Keesmaat, Heather Knight, Madeline Ashby and Director X, among others. Created by Motherboard in partnership with Audi.

Every day, approximately nine people are killed in the United States in car crashes related to distracted driving, and nearly 1,100 more are injured. In 2015, the National Safety Council, a nonprofit that promotes health and safety, reported cell phones were involved in 27 percent of all crashes in the US.

In Canada, one estimate says distracted driving deaths have increased 26 percent in the past decade, and someone in Ontario is injured in a distracted driving-related collision every 30 minutes.

Cell phones are largely to blame for this increase in distracted driving. Lawmakers have sought to legislate the problem away, yet it remains; we’re addicted to our screens, even when that addiction could potentially kill us or others.

The tech world has taken notice and launched dozens of apps in recent years to combat the use of cellphones while driving. Live2Txt and LifeSaver, for example, block incoming calls or text messages while you’re driving.

Others, like TrueMotion, use AI algorithms to detect when you’re driving, where you’re going, what type of vehicle you’re in, how you’re using the phone (text messaging, calls, etc.) and provides a drive score that includes all of your distracted driving incidents, and when they happened.

The company (formerly Censio) touts increased safety and the potential monetary benefits of providing that safe driving data to your insurance company, but some critics are concerned about the privacy implications of apps that track your every movement without your complete knowledge.

“It’s extending the Facebook model to insurance, which is what people had been worried about for a very long time,” Madeline Ashby, a futurist and science fiction writer, told Motherboard. “You’d be surrendering vast amounts of data about yourself, from which patterns can be inferred and used against you by a judgemental system.”

And then there’s the privacy implications of all this data, including where drivers have been, how long they were there, and other patterns they might not want others to know.

According to the terms of use for the Nexar dashcam, for example, “We reserve the right to store incidents and time-lapse photography indefinitely in order to support the ratings assigned to drivers' license plate numbers.”

Brad Cordova, co-founder of TrueMotion, told Motherboard the issue of who actually owns the data can vary based on the insurer and their agreements with clients.

“Insurance companies don’t really want all the data … they care more about the customer experience,” he said. “I think this is an ongoing discussion about who owns the data [and] when.”

The app and others like it are all part of a larger move toward so-called “usage based insurance” (UBI). This market is growing, with as many as 10 different UBI products available in almost every US state.

TrueMotion always runs in the background and uses your phone's own speed and GPS sensors, along with deep learning algorithms, to contextualize your movement and determine how your phone is being used. It can detect what kind of vehicle you’re in (a bus has a different vibration pattern from a car, for example) and whether you’re the driver or passenger. If can detect speed, sudden braking or acceleration, how far the phone is from your face, and if the device is up to your ear or sitting in a phone mount.

Cordova said it helps make the insurance process fairer for good drivers, because it can eliminate the traditional method of categorizing drivers by age and gender and instead helps companies base their rates on actual driving habits.

In May, Forbes reported a good score can earn a 20 percent premium discount from Progressive Insurance, while bad drivers can see hikes of 10 percent.

Ashby, however, worries that by using data we might not realize we’re giving up creates an unfair advantage for insurance companies. You might not even be aware of some of your driving habits, but the insurance companies are and they can ding you in the pocketbook, she said. Worse, they might examine other factors unrelated to driving performance (such as the kind of music you listen to) and make assumptions about your driving habits.

“Insurance companies have always been trying to predict your behaviour... You may not be conscious of the things you’re doing as a driver, but they could be,” she said. “If I sit at a poker table with a professional gambler, they will be able to read my tells in a way that I cannot because I’m a rookie.”