Laudator: Frank Rosengart

The BigBrotherAward 2007 in the “Technology” category goes to

PTV Planung Transport Verkehr AG

represented by Dr Hans Hubschneider

for their system for individual rating of car insurances with the so-called “pay-as-you-drive” technology, i.e. a device that records routes and driving behaviour in a car and transmits these data to the insurance company.

The idea sounds alluring: You drive sensibly and carefully, and in return you pay less for your car insurance. But how does the insurance company know whether someone drives carefully, keeps to speed limits and spends less time on the Autobahn? The technology involved is called “pay-as-you-drive”. It is supposed to motivate drivers, especially beginners, to drive safely – via their wallets.

Similar to the toll data collecting devices built into most German lorries, pay-as-you-drive works through satellite navigation and data transmission via mobile networks. Additionally, a number of other data sources within the vehicle can be tapped: acceleration sensors, setting of indicators, electronic tyre pressure measurements – even an alcohol tester can be connected to the device. All data are then transmitted to the insurance company on a regular basis. In addition, speed limits can be stored on electronic street maps within the device. Theoretically, pay-as-you-drive systems could even write out electronic speeding or parking tickets. There is no limit to surveillance fantasies, as in modern cars just about all technical parameters can be obtained from their on-board computers.

The main concern lies with the centralised processing of the data. In order to always work with the most recent maps and to keep the complexity of the pay-as-you-drive black box manageable, travel data are transmitted via GSM to the insurance company’s headquarters. The data will thus not be stored directly in the black box, decentralised and secure against Nosey Parkers; instead, the box regularly transmits its knowledge about the driver to the insurance company. There, the data will be matched with recent maps, and it will be checked whether “voluntary restrictions” from the insurance policy and legal proscriptions have been adhered to. And at the same time official bodies and other needy people can help themselves to these data from the troughs of the insurance company or its technical contractor.

Ever since the introduction of road charges for freight vehicles in Germany, we know how lecherous some state authorities become when it comes to gaining access to the data of the control system and the on-board units in the lorries. It is therefore an illusion to believe that the data collected through the pay-as-you-drive black box will remain in the hands of the car owner and the insurance company. The law regulating the collection of road charges, which had been expanded specially in its final version to cover data protection issues, has come under pressure since the German government changed in 2005. Until now, the use of toll data is strictly limited to specific purposes. Use for criminal investigations, e.g., is prohibited. That could soon be over, if prosecutors and some politicians get their way.

In the United Kingdom, pay-as-you-drive systems are already being tested. A number of insurance companies in Germany have voiced their interest in introducing this technology here. PTV with their “Roadrunner” kit are offering a platform for individual travel data collection that can be used for route-based car insurance schemes.

We don’t want to hold off bestowing a Big Brother Award until an insurance company puts a policy based on total surveillance on the market. Although it will always be pointed out that pay-as-you-drive rates are, of course, voluntary, in some sense customers will indeed be pressured towards putting a black box in their cars: through money.

Young beginners especially will not think twice about the technology when monetary savings are on offer – and then they will get used to comprehensive surveillance of their driving behaviour and their daily habits from an early stage. The success of loyalty and bonus cards shows that many citizens are willing to trade in their private sphere for ever so small rewards.

Pay-as-you-drive systems are not a “neutral” technology. Their sole function is monitoring and surveillance of drivers’ behaviour. Big Brother is watching you in your car.

Our heartfelt congratulations, Dr Hans Hubschneider of PTV Planung Transport Verkehr AG in Karlsruhe.