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Telematics Devices – Inside Black Boxes

If you thought only aircraft had black boxes, think again. In the context of motor insurance, they’re generically called telematics devices and they’re being used in more and more vehicles. Don’t bother searching the boot and engine compartment for a bright orange device the size of a shoe-box. Most are small, unobtrusive, and, well, black.

Their purpose is to track and record information about the vehicle and how it is being driven. In the UK, the earliest devices were tachographs, which became mandatory in heavy goods vehicles in 1986. They were introduced here under an EU directive and replaced a manual logbook system that had been compulsory since 1969. The logbook system was an attempt to control drivers’ working hours and ensure adequate rest periods.

Surprisingly, tachographs are not a recent invention. Unsurprisingly, they were invented in Germany to monitor irregularities in trains and were first used in 1844. In Germany, tachographs have been mandatory in some heavy vehicles since 1952, so the UK was being dragged into the modern age. The paper logbook system was open to abuse – deliberate or accidental mis-recording was easy. Because the mechanical tachograph removed many opportunities for “error”, it wasn’t popular with drivers or fleet owners and was dubbed “the spy in the cab”. Early versions had to be loaded with a recording disc, rather like a waxed paper CD, on which a stylus recorded basic data such as time and vehicle speed. Fresh abuses arose – “forgetting” to load a disc or to switch on the device – and in 2006 digital tachographs became mandatory in new goods vehicles.

Also in 2006, insurer Norwich Union (now Aviva) introduced a pay-as-you-drive scheme for private car users. Using black boxes, the system allowed differential rates of premium charging, according to time of day and type of road. The idea was to encourage drivers to minimise driving in busy periods or on certain types of roads. Claims statistics showed that certain times or roads were bad for claims, so the mileage rates for those situations were weighted. Older readers, with memories of pre-mobile phone days, will remember their Dads forbidding use of the phone until after 6 pm, for similar reasons! The system also allowed differential charging rates for young drivers, and the policies were actively marketed to young drivers as a means of both improving their driving and potentially slashing their premium costs by up to a third.

After an initial flurry of excitement over these new-fangled policies, they settled down to a fairly low level of take-up. However, advances in technology and improvements in the GPS and wi-fi infrastructure have recently encouraged a resurgence of telematics devices. Growing interest in usage-based insurance has also driven demand for better devices and now there is a bewildering array of black boxes.

The original black boxes relied on connection to the vehicle’s OBD (on-board diagnostics) system. Under another EU mandate, all European vehicles have had OBD ports since 2001, although many already had them after their introduction in the late 1960s. Initially, their purpose was to allow real-time tuning of fuel injected engines, but OBD-II ports now allow monitoring of a wide range of diagnostic sensors and infotainment devices. The port is usually hidden on or under the dashboard, behind a cover or a pull-out change tray. Many insurance black boxes simply plug into these ports and are attached to the dashboard or windscreen nearby.

The black box itself is like a limited function mobile phone, with a SIM card and the means to use GPS and the mobile phone network to send data to the insurer.

The disadvantage of the basic black box is that it’s a “fit and forget” device. It communicates only with the insurer. There is no direct driver feedback. Unless the box is prominently mounted as a reminder, the driver might forget it’s there and slip into undesirable driving behaviours which adversely affect their premium.

The similarity between a black box and a mobile phone and the increased functionality of smartphones means that a smartphone itself can be the means of communication. In 2009 Apple trademarked the slogan “there’s an app for that” and in the case of smartphone-based telematics devices, it’s literally true. The app driving the figurative “black box” literally sits on the phone, next to the icons for banking, Spotify and TikTok.

However, it would be easy to “inadvertently” forget to take the phone, or to switch it on, to minimise apparent usage. We’d be no further forward than the easily-abused logbook or wax-paper disc! To overcome this glaring shortcoming, smartphone-based black boxes come with a tag. Users download the app to the smartphone, then register the vehicle and permitted drivers to the app. The tag is then paired with the app and the tag is secured to the windscreen where it remains. There is no direct connection between the tag and the vehicle systems. The tag tracks all vehicle usage and when connected to the smartphone, transmits stored data to the insurers, like its older OBD-II cousin. The data is also available to the driver via the app and can be viewed in a variety of ways. Some apps will “score” the quality of driving and make suggestions for improvement, if necessary. This is an improvement over the “dumb” black box, but the tag has no access to the OBD system. It relies on GPS and accelerometers to track location, speed, and braking intensity. Also, the tag and the smartphone rely on Bluetooth to communicate with each other, and it is recommended that passengers switch off Bluetooth to avoid problems.

In the context of fleet telematics, Bluetooth has its place. Unlike GPS or mobile phone signals, Bluetooth is low energy and suitable for transmitting data over short distances, usually a few metres only. Its strength lies in its ability to connect devices wirelessly, and that feature was key to the naming of it. King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson of the Vikings gained his nickname as he had a dead “blue” tooth. However, he was also called “The Uniter” for uniting the tribes of Denmark and also unifying Denmark and Norway. The familiar Bluetooth symbol is derived from the runic versions of the king’s initials “H” and “B”.

The short range makes Bluetooth unsuitable for transmitting driver or trip data from a vehicle to the insurer.

However, it is useful to download trip data from fleet vehicles on their return to base for analysis. In this situation it will have full access to OBD, digital tachometer and trip mapping data, providing a wealth of information to the fleet manager and, potentially, insurers. Key areas of interest to fleet managers are fuel consumption costs and engine idling times for optimising service intervals.

Finally, and again driven by technological innovation, more vehicles are sold with OEM (original equipment manufacturer) telematics already on-board. Devices and functions vary, but in general they achieve similar ends to the free-standing or retro-fitted devices discussed already. In addition, driver assistance features are increasingly common, as reliably autonomous vehicles are almost a reality. In their latest review of telematics devices and options, Insurance & Mobility Solutions state “Although this form of data collection for insurance telematics is relatively uncommon today, a TSP (telematics service provider) equipped to integrate with embedded car systems and make sense of the disparate data will be able to tap into the benefits for both insurers and their customers as the technology matures.”

As noted above, in 1986, the first automatic tachograph prompted accusations of “spy in the cab”. Fast forward to 2021 and retail behemoth Amazon was at the centre of a controversy when it came to light it was using AI (artificial intelligence) cameras literally to spy on UK drivers and report shortcomings in their driving.

An issue we’ll probably return to in due course is – “Just because we can record it, should we record it?” Where does the balance lie between Winston and Big Brother?

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Andy Rear | chairman

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