I have mixed feelings about this. It’s important for sharing the road, and it’ll keep people honest, but if you know me you know I won’t necessarily wholeheartedly like this.
A new app that lets frustrated drivers vent their anger at boneheaded motorists already has branded your bumper with a “How’s My Driving” sticker, and it could raise your insurance premium. It’s like having thousands of unmarked police cars and speed cameras on every roadway, and it could spell the end of anonymity behind the wheel.
DriveMeCrazy, developed by Shazam co-founder Philip Inghelbrecht, is a voice-activated app that encourages drivers to report bad behavior by reciting the offender’s license plate into a smartphone. The poor sap gets “flagged” and receives a virtual “ticket,” which may not sound like much until you realize all the information — along with date, time and location of the “offense” — is sent to the DMV and insurance companies.
Anyone can write a ticket, even pedestrians and cyclists. No one is safe from being tattled on. Even if you don’t use the program, which went live Wednesday, you can’t opt out of being flagged if someone thinks you’re driving like a schmuck. Inghelbrecht is emphatic in saying he sees no privacy issues with the app and insists the end of road-going anonymity can only improve safety.
“People think they can do bad things on the road because they think they can get away with it,” he said. “I believe that driving is one of the most public acts that you could ever do. One small mistake can impact the lives of those around you.”
Inghelbrecht compares DriveMeCrazy to government programs that encourage reporting drunk drivers or gross polluters. If drivers know they’re being watched by smartphone-wielding vigilantes, Inghelbrecht figures they will refrain from aggressive behavior for fear of getting flagged. His goal is to cut the number of motor vehicle accidents 1 or 2 percent by 2020, a figure that would represent 700 lives saved annually.
“That would be the most beautiful outcome, commercial aspects aside,” he said.
Those commercial aspects could be huge.
“The ability for monetization is actually really strong,” he said. “I don’t want to get into too much detail, but essentially if people report driving behavior of their fellow motorists, you’re building a database of driver information.”
It’s like vehicle-history reports, but with thousands of reports on the behavior of individual drivers. “That’s obviously interesting to the insurance companies, who are truly information starved,” he said.
Insurance companies rely on buying your driving record from your state’s motor-vehicle bureau, and they use predictive proxy data such as marital status, homeownership and ZIP code to determine your risk. Inghelbrecht sees insurance companies having great interest in a driver-behavior database that, if predictive of claims data, could help set rates.
Already, Inghelbrecht is looking at putting together a pilot program with insurance companies, though the industry’s interest — and how much driver-reported data regulators might allow them to use — is uncertain. Nationwide Insurance offered an opinion in an e-mail to Wired.com.
“Auto-insurance rates are filed with state regulators and must include consistent definitions for the activities that will vary costs for consumers,” the company said. “Because each individual who would observe another driver’s performance would have a unique perspective about what might be safe behaviors, it would be difficult to use information reported by the general public.”
Not quite a ringing endorsement, but Inghelbrecht isn’t worried.
“Our data is never as official or authoritative as a police report,” he said. So how can he assure accuracy? Volume.
“The reality is that the police only capture about 35 million moving violations, of which 10 million make it to the DMV,” he said. “For us to get 10 million flags on vehicles isn’t exactly a stretch.”
That’s 10 million pieces of information about motorists sent in by their fellow motorists. Of course, the wisdom of the crowd may not hold up under the scrutiny of state regulators or insurance companies’ internal standards.
There are no limitations on reasons for flagging. Pass on a double-yellow line in a school zone? Flagged. Not driving fast enough for the 16-year-old hoon tailgating you? Flagged. Didn’t see that jaywalking pedestrian wearing a dark coat at night? Flagged. Got a bumpersticker that offends someone? You guessed it. Flagged.
“There’s going to be noise in the data,” Inghelbrecht conceded.
Still, the company is developing algorithms that sort out malicious flags from relevant data. For each flag, he said, “we capture the day, the time, the location, obviously the license plate and the unique device identifier on [a flagger's] iPhone. You can quickly detect malicious use.” Safeguards ensure that multiple flags of the same driver from the same user are ignored, and mistakenly entered plates are matched with other location data.
If that doesn’t work, drivers will soon be able to leave feedback for informants, er, flaggers, which is currently the only official appeal that a flagged driver will have.
Inghelbrecht says someday his crowdsourced driver-behavior database may be worth more than relatively incomplete DMV records, much the same way that online review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp have gained in popularity over Michelin guides.
“If I had told you 10 years ago you can choose between Michelin or reviews by people who visited the restaurant, you and me and everyone else would’ve said Michelin,” he said.
It isn’t all negative. Drivers can also report someone who is driving safely or even flirt with other drivers who have DriveMeCrazy profiles set up, but we imagine that cutie in the 3-Series convertible won’t be nearly as interested in you as your insurance company.
Photo of rush hour in Boston: Josh Michtom / Flickr. Screenshots: DriveMeCrazy