App puts a driving instructor in your hand

Rachel Hartman
Want to improve your driving? Beefing up your behind-the-wheel skills could be just an app away.

The Mobile Life Guard, a smartphone app now in the development stages, offers real-time feedback to drivers regarding their driving habits and surrounding road conditions.
The device, which synchs with a vehicle’s on-board computer, alerts motorists to potential hazards such as construction delays and stormy weather. It also detects and offers feedback on the driver’s movements. If you swerve out of your lane, hit the brakes too hard or engage in lane hopping, the app will pick up these behaviors and draw your attention to them.
“It’s similar to having a driving instructor in the car,” says Ram Dantu, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of North Texas and developer of the Mobile Life Guard app. Essentially, he says, the app "can make you a better driver.”
Dantu is one of 21 recipients of the Innovation Corps award from the National Science Foundation. The money he received is being used to design the app for commercial purposes. The Mobile Life Guard is being tested now and is set to be released to the public in March 2012.
Mobile monitoring
The Mobile Life Guard app joins a lineup of tracking and telecommunications devices that auto manufacturers and insurance companies have designed or are developing for consumers.
OnStar, an in-car communication device available in more than 30 General Motors models, offers drivers services such as navigation, roadside assistance and automatic crash response.
Progressive’s Snapshot, a device that the insurer's customers can plug into their car, tracks the number of miles the car covers, the time of day a vehicle is driven and how often sudden stops are made. Based on these factors, motorists can receive a discount of up to 30 percent on their premiums.
Despite the increasing popularity of such devices in vehicles, many units currently on the market track only basic information such as how many miles a driver logs, Dantu says. The Mobile Life Guard offers more, he says: “In addition to real-time feedback, drivers can view a report of their trip.”
The ability to assess driving habits and identify risks is a key component when it comes to auto insurance. In fact, innovations like the Mobile Life Guard app are helping them fine-tune how they set rates.
If insurance companies have access to more information regarding your driving habits, you may be able to receive more perks. Here are three ways that the driver-monitoring trend -- known broadly as telematics -- can benefit you:
1. Save money on premiums.
As insurance companies are able to identify driving habits, they can offer discounts to good drivers.
While the Mobile Life Guard program may, like Progressive’s Snapshot, lead to lower rates for drivers with reputable habits, experts see little chance of a reverse effect. If you regularly drive on the aggressive side, you’ll likely stay at the same rate you’re paying now. However, if you brake appropriately on a consistent basis, you may be eligible for a discount.
2. Teach others to drive safely.
The Teen Safe Driver Program, offered at no cost to American Family Insurance customers, lets consumers install a video and audio unit in a car driven by a teen. The device picks up on behaviors such as excessive speed, sharp turns and hard braking. It captures 30 seconds before and 30 seconds after the risky behavior takes place. Parents then can view a report card of their children’s driving habits, which assesses the driving behavior compared with other teens.
The unit detects risky driving behavior a teen may not even be aware of, says Janet Masters, a spokeswoman for American Family Insurance. Since the program launched more than four months ago, seat belt use generally for participants is at 100 percent, and risky driving behavior has been reduced by about 70 percent. “It’s very effective as a teaching tool to help teens learn how to drive safely,” Masters says.
3. Gain more services. 
More than half of the top U.S. and U.K. auto insurers have telematics programs in place, according to a recent report published by Celent, a research and consulting firm.
This increase is bringing consumer benefits that go beyond better premium prices and driving habits, experts say. If you have a tracking device, filing a claim with your insurance company could begin as soon as your vehicle is involved in a crash. The in-car device would detect the wreck and notify your insurer immediately, starting the claims process before you even reach for the phone.

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