Why auto insurers want to watch you breathe, sweat and swear

State Farm is the largest auto insurer in the U.S., but within a few years it may be small enough to squeeze into your car and monitor how you drive by checking your pulse, breathing, eye movements, and even how much you sweat.

In four patent applications State Farm with the U.S. Patent Office, the Midwestern insurer describes how it could make you sit up straight; keep your eyes on the road; plant your hands firmly on the wheel rather than your cell phone; and, perhaps most important, avoid road rage.

If you do see red, State Farm will try to calm you down by using "appropriate stimuli," such as turning on soothing music. Conversely, if you're a hothead who tends to ignore the ministrations of your benevolent backseat driver, you might find your car insurance premiums going up.

Don't expect this to happen overnight. State Farm's patents are themselves an insurance policy of their own to stop any other company from getting the idea first.

"We are actively innovating...to meet the evolving needs of our customers," State Farm spokesperson Rachael Risinger said. "As part of this process, it's important that the company protect its ideas through patent application filings."

So is this vision of the future driver who is monitored down to their facial expressions and controlled by this insurer's biometric sensors and cameras ever going to be reality? State Farm can't -- or won't -- say.

"Because of the nature of our innovation work and patent program, we are unable to provide further comments at this time," Risinger said.

Still, it's clear the auto insurance industry is moving in this direction -- quickly. It is also clear that lots of drivers may actually like it.

Insurer Progressive's (PGR) "Snapshot" program, which places sensors inside your vehicle to monitor aspects of your driving including hard braking, which may indicate aggressive behavior like tailgating, has been very successful at remotely influencing drivers. State Farm is following suit to develop similar programs, and even shifting the point of such surveillance from the dashboard to the driver's seat.

Some motorists are unlikely to go along with these programs. For instance, the "Car and Driver" crowd and other auto enthusiasts may not want an insurer telling them what to do.

But the insurance industry has a way to bring them in line: lower premiums if you accept these restrictions, the same or higher premiums if you don't. Bear in mind that the cost will go up if you don't behave, amass tickets or get into an accident.

State Farm's patents could also potentially drive the automotive industry closer to the intersection with self-driving cars. Going "driverless" still faces a host of legal, regulatory and social challenges, not to mention the higher cost of the vehicle itself, such as rooftop sensors that could easily be stolen or damaged.

But if the sensors are placed inside the car, they will be less vulnerable, and still capture a motorist's every move. So the driver, in effect, becomes the machine, a robot behind the wheel that the insurer controls.

If all this sounds futuristic, consider the actual devices proposed in State Farm's patents. These include optical sensors to monitor eye movement and blinking, and biometric sensors to record skin conductivity (sweating) and heart rate. A microphone would record voice modulation, so shouting at other drivers or even cursing to yourself if you are cut off could count against you. "Gaze direction" would be recorded, and infrared and ultrasound sensors, as well as "haptic" devices worn by the driver -- similar to a Fitbit -- would also be harnessed. Other devices installed in the car would counter inattentive or inappropriate driving behavior.

Under State Farm's approach, an onboard monitor that senses anger could turn on soft music, creating an interior sound much like a yoga studio. Aromatic odors could be released. Or a driver who nods off could feel the temperature in the car suddenly change. According to the patent application, drivers could also receive a "poke" in the ribs from tactile stimuli to wake them up.

State Farm has another idea: A report card relayed to the driver via an on-board screen, hopefully after he or she is safely parked. It would indicate what a person did wrong and how to improve. But the report card would undoubtedly also go to the insurer.

Doctors and psychologists would argue that facial tics, high blood pressure and other individual characteristics shouldn't be used against a driver. And some demonstrative behavior, such as calling another driver an "idiot" when you are cut off, may be healthier than returning the favor.

In other words, these patent applications could have a long way to go before they see the open road.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.