Mobile apps have gotten so good at steering you to the fastest possible route to your job or your home because of all the notes they take about when traffic slows or stops. But that data can also be put to work to reduce a major cause of traffic: car crashes.
That’s the hope of one of America’s largest auto-insurance companies, which wants to take the information gathered both from its own mobile apps and the drive-monitoring sensors it’s been handing out to policyholders since 2010 to make the roads safer and more efficient.
That seems like an obvious application—except that American drivers don’t always take advice about their habits graciously. But if Allstate (ALL) and other insurance and navigation firms can find ways to enlighten drivers about the risks they’re taking and the time they waste—and if cities and states can apply that knowledge to their own infrastructure—we could see a serious payoff in terms of hours, money and lives saved.
“The transportation system is crazy inefficient,” said Gary Hallgren, CEO of Allstate’s data subsidiary Arity, in an interview before speaking on a panel at a conference hosted by The Atlantic in Washington in early December.
It also remains unsafe: Vehicle fatalities reached their highest level in a decade last year (37,461, to be exact).
Allstate has a better grasp on this data than most because of all the data it collects. For years, it’s offered “telematics” devices that subscribers can plug into cars to have their activity monitored to get a safer-driving discount. It now also has a comparable Drivewise smartphone app and is inviting other apps to embed similar driving-monitoring features.
This goes beyond the data that Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Apple (AAPL) and other developers of navigation apps can collect: They can’t track throttle and brake usage like a telematics pod in a car’s diagnostics port. And neither company has such a direct economic incentive to keep drivers and their vehicles unharmed.
Arity’s first application of this growing collection of data, announced in mid-December, is a set of three road-safety tools. One offers a risk assessment of a given route, another provides real-time warnings to drivers approaching more dangerous sections—let’s call that “you’re gonna die!” mode—and a third can steer drivers to routes with better safety records.
But you can’t use these to safeguard tomorrow morning’s commute. Arity won’t have them in a shipping app until sometime in the first quarter of 2018, while other app developers may take longer to incorporate these tools in their own releases.
The company hasn’t identified those other customers, but Hallgren said three ride-sharing firms were among them, noting that they “have a unique need for understanding risk.“ Taxi operators, however, have yet to sign up.
Cities and departments of transportation should also be able to apply this data when building or improving roads, much as many use information about pedestrian and cyclist patterns that the workout-tracking app developer Strava aggregates in its Strava Metro product.
Arity isn’t the only company with this idea: Here, the navigation firm mostly owned by a group of German automakers, now provides its own hazard-warning tools that navigation apps can incorporate. Like Arity’s, they aggregate information from in-vehicle sensors that Apple and Google’s apps can’t reach: If enough drivers slammed on the brakes at a particular curve, they can advise you of that in advance.
Safety is hard, efficiency may be harder
Reducing crashes alone can help by cutting down on unexpected traffic. But car transportation will remain fundamentally inefficient as long as so many cars stay parked most of the time, then only transport the person driving them.
The more ambitious but less-clear part of Arity’s agenda is increasing the utilization rate of vehicles. Hallgren put that figure at 4%, although third-party estimates have said it might reach all of 5%.
Reducing the time that vehicles spend at rest involves far more car sharing and a fundamental shift in car ownership—with driver-tracking software to hold non-owner drivers accountable.
“I think that there’s going to be a mix of things in different areas,” Hallgren said. “You could see neighborhoods pooling cars together in the suburbs; you could see large fleets in the cities.”
But the bigger improvement won’t come without self-driving cars. They can keep working after delivering an occupant to a job and can follow other cars more closely and at faster speeds (Hallgren pointed to self-driving trucks forming platoons on highways) but will also need new sets of rules (get ready for proposals for autonomous-only lanes).
Public anxiety over handing over the wheel to software remains the toughest part of this transition. Hallgren is almost certainly right in his prediction of what will happen once a self-driving car causes a collision instead of being on the receiving end of a human driver’s mistake: “That’s going to steal all the headlines.”
When that happens, please remember the numbers showing how bad we humans are at driving. And as the founder of one smart-cities startup noted, you should also remember that the data autonomous cars gather should help make roads safer for us, too.
“With billions of records of open data, plus exponential growth in IoT sensors and autonomous vehicle data, very soon there will be enough data to not only describe the past, but predict the future of cities,” said Carey Anne Nadeau, CEO of the Washington-based firm Open Data Nation. “And that is a magical moment.”
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