Progressive ships location-tracking devices to volunteer policyholders

It seemed unlikely only a year ago.

Big U.S. car insurers had spent the past few years reassuring customers that the monitoring devices they installed in vehicles as a way of rewarding safe driving didn't track location.

But as part of a pilot program that it disclosed this year, Progressive Corp. is now shipping GPS-enabled devices to policyholders who volunteer to have their driving monitored in exchange for discounts, a company executive said recently.

Progressive's decision to go ahead with location tracking, in what are commonly called telematics or usage-based insurance programs, suggests that an increasing number of consumers are becoming less concerned about sharing their whereabouts.

"We started to ship GPS-enabled devices to our customers in April," Steven Broz, Progressive project management office leader, said last month at a company investor day. Company employees had been testing them in their vehicles for several months earlier.

Only a few years ago, customers weren't ready for GPS-enabled devices in their vehicles, Broz acknowledged to investors in the Mayfield Village, Ohio-based company.

But Big Brother concerns about location tracking are almost passe, as nearly two-thirds of consumers have GPS on their smartphones, he said.

"They are ready," Broz said about Progressive sending GPS-enabled devices to participants. "We find that when we offer GPS-enabled devices to our customers, they have the same take rate as those devices that don't have GPS in them."

Progressive's current program is called Snapshot.

Last week, Northbrook-based Allstate disclosed that its new Drivewise Mobile app, which also assesses driving habits in exchange for potential discounts, has a location-tracking feature.

"Once we know where the vehicle is, we can bring in all kinds of external data to ask new questions," including whether the speed limit of the roads that the vehicle is traveling on should factor into rates, Broz said.

"We're excited, because these are questions we couldn't even answer just a year ago," he said.

Progressive spokeswoman Amanda Lupica said Thursday that the data, while being gathered in "a sample of GPS-enabled Snapshot devices in the market," still aren't being factored into the discount.

"We are researching it to see if it could be useful for future updates to the program," she said.

Even as the public becomes increasingly accustomed to sharing personal information on social media as well as information about their whereabouts, consumer advocates have raised concerns about whether people who live, work or drive through certain neighborhoods, including those with higher crime rates, might be penalized with costlier coverage.

Progressive and other insurers have assured policyholders that the devices won't be used to penalize them, only to reward good driving behaviors.

A new era? The banking industry is stockpiling capital and seeing a decline in bad loans, but it still faces challenges, Steven Hovde, chief executive of Inverness-based Hovde Group LLC, said at a conference of Bank Director magazine this week.

Nearly 500 U.S. banks have failed since the beginning of 2008, and although the rate of collapse has slowed significantly in recent quarters, government seizures of lenders still occur more regularly than they did before the recession.

While more failures are likely in 2014, "this year, hopefully, will be the end of" regular announcements about banks being seized by the government, he told the crowd at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago on Tuesday.

Also, the industry benchmark for return on assets — it's an important measure of bank profitability — is typically 1 percent.

According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the average return on assets at the nation's community banks was 0.87 percent in the first quarter. Hovde raised the question of whether that's the new norm.

"It's hard to get back to 1 percent ROA, but good community banks can do it," said Hovde, whose firm provides merger and acquisition advice and also invests in banks.

In case you're counting: Wintrust Financial Corp. of Rosemont has completed 19 bank-related deals since 2010 — nine deals for failed banks, six deals for various sets of branches and four acquisitions of banks that hadn't failed, according to a report Wednesday by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

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