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Summary:

A new startup from the founder of The Climate Corporation is looking to use driving data to remake the stodgy car insurance sector and is launching in Oregon on Wednesday.

MetroMile

Ever wonder why insurance companies have the most ridiculous ads (Geico caveman, Aflac duck, Mayhem Allstate guy)? It’s because they’re all basically offering the exact same service, so they have to out-guffaw each other to claw off each others’ customers. But a new startup called MetroMile, is launching on Wednesday in Oregon with a new type of insurance that uses driving data to charge customers per-mile rates.

The company and idea were created by David Friedberg — also the founder and CEO of The Climate Corporation — and Steve Pretre, who will lead the startup as its CEO. Friedberg brought in Climate Corp’s investors (as well as Climate Corp itself) to back MetroMile, and the company has already raised $4 million from NEA, Index Ventures, First Round Capital, and SV Angel, in addition to Climate Corp.

MetroMile

Customers using MetroMile’s new service — which is only available in Oregon because it needs state approval — place a device called the Metronome into their car’s onboard diagnostic car port, called the OBD-II. You might have never noticed it, but the OBD-II is standard port on all cars built after 1996, and has to be accessible in the front dashboard within three feet of the driver. The port is one of the ways that car data is being unlocked for third party developers (see my GigaOM Pro report, subscription required).

After the Metronome is plugged in, it accesses all the car computer’s data, and specifically collects (for this initial product) information about how much the customer is driving. The cellular connection in the Metronome enables MetroMile to process the data in the cloud, and the Metronome also has GPS to track distance. I was wondering if a cell phone app would have the brains to do this just as easily (and clearly more cheaply), and Friedberg told me in an interview that they need the data to be collected by a device to avoid fraud and ensure accountability.

MetroMileOnce MetroMile has the driving data, it can charge its customer only for how much — or how little — they’ve driven per month. Drivers who only occasionally use their car — say for weekend trips — would pay much lower rates than a person who commutes in their car an hour every day, each way.

While the idea sounds boringly simple, it’s meant to target a specific set of drivers that doesn’t drive all that much and who for years have been subsidizing those drivers that do drive a lot through traditional car insurance programs. Most of the accidents are done by drivers that drive a lot, says Friedberg. This new type of low mileage demographic tends to be young, urban, environmentally conscious, and maybe even a member of car sharing groups like Zipcar.

That target demographic is alive and well in MetroMile’s initial city, Portland, where the dream of the 90’s are also alive, and everything has a bird on it. MetroMile said it can offer this type of driver insurance for 20 to 50 percent less cost than traditional insurance, with equal or even superior coverage. Friedberg told me that MetroMile has discussed its insurance products with car sharing companies, but that the company is really targeting car owners, as car sharing drivers are still a small slice of the population.

MetroMile also shows the customer their driving data through an online dashboard. Down the road, MetroMile could offer other types of services using car data. I could envision a service that gives recommendations for how to cut down on driving (to save fuel costs), in the same way that Opower provides recommendations for lowering energy consumption.

In that way, MetroMile, like the Climate Corporation, could have a planet-friendly slant. Once car drivers know more data about their own driving habits, their likely inclined to drive their car more efficiently.

The traditional insurance companies are also looking at using devices and data to create new products, and the New York Times had an interesting article on this trend this weekend. Friedberg says that standard insurance companies won’t readily accept pay-per-mile insurance rates because then they would be forced to raise rates on the drivers that drive a lot more, to cover the lower mileage drivers; drivers that face higher rates then would just defect to competitors, said Friedberg. Car drivers are also wary of what types of data the car insurance companies are collecting with these new devices, and also how the insurance companies would use such data.

  1. This is not new. The model (both technically, and consumer acceptance-wise) has been tested for years. Consumer acceptance seems to be the biggest hurdle as there is the perception of big brother watching over one’s shoulder. Commercial vehicles have had this option available for more than ten years now.

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    1. Prashant Shukla Tuesday, December 18, 2012

      Hi Tobby,

      Which companies do you know of have provided this for the last 10 years?

      Companies like Progressive have products that will see how you drive for a while, then offer you a rate based on that (SnapShot). But nothing truly pay-per-use.

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  2. MileMeter tried to do this one-off approach in Texas over the last year and failed. Good luck.

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    1. Prashant Shukla Tuesday, December 18, 2012

      Danny,

      MileMeter didn’t have $4M in Series A funding from a top-tier venture-capital firm (NEA), didn’t have industry experts, and didn’t have a device in your car. It also got squeezed during the credit crunch in 2008 and failed mostly due to that. Texas is also the wrong market for something like this, most people drive a lot. Portland and San Francisco on the other hand…

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  3. ‘Tobby ‘ is correct…this is not a new effort, in fact, irrespective of common use with commercial vehicles Progressive Insurance Company is using a form of this now.
    The real leap forward will be to analyze data to surcharge those whose driving habits make them
    higher risks. This may encompass the ‘Freeway Racer,’ or other undesirable.

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  5. Tobby, Danny and Steve – thanks for echoing that this is not new. Friedberg and his Silicon Valley investors club also have been bragging about Climate Corp (formerly called WeatherBill) as if its the first company in the planet to offer weather insurance (which it is not), and then they further brag about how much they are into the “big data” scene (such as at conferences and meetups about Amazon cloud services). The reality is that anyone who has been in the weather and/or ag industries laugh because WeatherBill is very much dependent on the truly big data generated from primarily these two U.S. government agencies – NOAA and USDA (both of which have been doing “big data” for decades). Climate Corp wouldn’t have much of a weather insurance business if it weren’t for NOAA and the USDA. And finally, hiring real meteorologists and climatologists (not just “mathematical climatologists with no climate experience necessary”) seems to be an after thought by Friedberg et al.

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    1. Prashant Shukla Tuesday, December 18, 2012

      Darwin,

      I understand where you coming from, but simply saying there has been weather insurance around for a while doesn’t really refute what David is saying or what Climate Corp does.

      Climate Corp revolutionized the WAY weather insurance is implemented and thought about. It’s the first company to use a very algorithmic approach that benefits all parties involved and makes the market more efficient. I agree, that isn’t the same as the “1st weather insurance ever”, but you can see where they are coming from.

      Also, Climate Corp is a billion-dollar company, so they are probably doing something right.

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