Ever wish someone would suggest having a cup of coffee to stay alert before you really need one?
Bloomington-based State Farm has received a patent for a system that includes a wearable computing device that could alert drivers, perhaps through a poke or vibration, who show signs of being drowsy, distracted or drunk.
Trips could also be analyzed over time and suggestions made to motorists, including even “drinking a caffeinated beverage shortly before operating the vehicle at high impairment times,” the patent said.
The alerts could be provided through smart watches, wireless headsets, computer-enhanced glasses or clothing with embedded microprocessors. The company’s patent envisions optic sensors to detect, among other things, head nods and the duration of blinks, which would help calculate a drowsiness score.
State Farm and some other major insurers, including Northbrook-based Allstate, have stepped up efforts to get into increasingly connected cars. They already offer devices and mobile apps that monitor certain driving habits, including mileage and braking.
“As our industry and the needs of our customers continue to change, State Farm strives to be a leading innovator within the insurance marketplace,” spokeswoman Missy Dundov said. “As part of this process, it’s important that State Farm protects its ideas through patent filings, and the patent process allows us to further research ideas to determine how we can better serve our customers, as well as improve vehicle safety.”
She declined to comment further, including on whether scores could affect insurance rates.
But some financial technology and wearables industry observers say State Farm and other companies have a long road ahead of them in trying to track drivers’ physiology. Aside from privacy concerns, insurers are laggards when it comes to introducing technology, they say, and everyone, from carmakers to technology companies, already has been looking at wearables and other devices that could increase driver safety.
“While no one is against making distracted driving less frequent, State Farm has its work cut out for it getting its policyholders to accept sensors that collect very personal — physical and physiological — data,” said Donald Light, director of the North America property and casualty insurance practice of financial technology consulting firm Celent.
Jim Fish, president of the National Association of Professional Allstate Agents, said he likes the idea of wearable devices that can be worn in any vehicle as a way to improve safety, but said the public seems to be “increasingly wary of the data collection practices — and lack of transparency — of corporate America.”
“Insurers should take heed of this growing trend because, eventually, consumers may decide that their privacy is worth more than saving a few dollars on their premiums,” Fish said.
Insurers and other financial institutions might want to protect their intellectual property through patents, but “being good at filing patents and executing on those ideas are two distinct issues,” said Gwenn Bezard, research director for the insurance practice of financial services market research firm Aite Group. “Given the track record of the insurance industry — slow to execute on technology innovation — and considering how rapidly carmakers and other technology vendors like Google are advancing car technology, I find it dubious that a carrier like State Farm would ever be in a position to market” such a product.
“In the best scenario, State Farm may be able to pitch it to fleet managers, or collect royalties from other firms with the know-how of turning it into something marketable to consumers,” Bezard said. “But I’d be surprised to see State Farm picking the battle of convincing consumers to embrace such a technology.”
Saverio Romeo, a principal analyst on wearable technologies for Beecham Research, said the use of wearable devices and smart textile for car interiors for security and safety isn’t new.
“There is a market for the concept, but whether this specific patent is better than other ideas around” is questionable, he said.
In State Farm’s patent, a distractedness score could also be calculated in part by the number of times that a driver checks a mirror; not checking it within a certain period of time could hurt a score.
The wearable could also be coupled to a electroencephalograph, heart-rate monitor, altimeter, alcohol sensor and thermal image capture device, which could track the driver’s body temperature and signal whether he or she is ill or drowsy, the State Farm patent said. Linking to a microphone could detect irregularities in the driver’s voice, suggesting that he or she might be stressed out. The altimeter would detect changes in altitude that could impair a driver.
Alerts in the State Farm patent could also be audible or visual. The data from the sensors could be transmitted to servers. The patent also mentions the possibility of creating databases and discusses ways that the system could be turned off in the vehicle.