Siri coming to cars: What does it mean for car insurance?

Rachel Hartman

It’s your voice assistant when you’re on the go. And now, it’s coming to your car.

Siri, the voice control system featured in Apple’s iPhone 4S, will be built into vehicles during the coming months, according to an announcement made by Apple on June 11, 2012.

The Siri feature will let drivers access their iPhones through a button installed on a car's steering wheel or dashboard. While driving, they’ll be able to place calls, play music, listen to and dictate text messages, and get directions – all without taking eyes off of the road. To further minimize distractions, the phone’s screen won’t light up when a voice command is received.

The Apple Siri button joins a lineup of new technology available in cars, including Ford’s Sync, which can read text messages to drivers and allows them to send voice-activated preset responses. Major auto manufacturers have signed up for the Apple Siri integration, including nine cited by Apple: BMW, General Motors, Toyota, Chrysler, Land Rover, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Audi.

While these devices aim to reduce distractions for drivers, some companies are offering devices to further minimize cellphone interruptions for drivers. Sprint’s Drive First app, for instance, delays sending texts and calls while someone is behind the wheel.

“Improving driver safety is the primary goal of these technological initiatives, but anything that reduces the number of accidents is good news for auto insurers, too,” says Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. 

Apple, Siri and car insurance rates

Here are three trends to watch for when it comes to communication technology in cars.

1. Car insurers will be watching claims.

Insurance companies look at the number and type of claims filed in the past to help them determine current car insurance rates. For new devices such as the Apple Siri button, there isn't a claims-filing history yet, Barry says.

If, in the future, cars with hands-free and eyes-free technology features are found to be responsible for crashes, insurers may need to adjust rates accordingly. 

2. More may not mean better.

“In some cases, such as navigation systems, new technology could make it easier for people to get directions without taking hands and eyes off of the road,” says Bill Windsor, associate vice president of consumer safety at car insurance company Nationwide.

But if the technology actually leads to more distractions (checking Facebook every few minutes, for example), it could lead to more crashes. This, in turn, could trigger a hike in car insurance rates.

3. Safe driving still wins rewards.

“There’s no phone call or email that’s important enough to risk hurting yourself or someone else,” Windsor says.

Insurers are more likely to focus on incentives for drivers who put away their phones while behind the wheel than using a type of technology that could cause cognitive (mental) distractions, he says.

Several car insurance companies offer discounts for safe driving. At Nationwide, for instance, you can save up to 10 percent if you've been driving for at least five years without being in an accident. Progressive's Snapshot devices tracks the number of miles you drive, the time of day you drive, and how often you make sudden stops. Drivers who use it can receive up to a 30 percent discount on car insurance.

Siri: Anti-distraction savior?

Is the Apple Siri button a solution to the problem of distracted driving?

“It has the potential to curb distraction, but it’s not a cure-all,” says Carroll Lachnit, consumer advice expert and features editor at Edmunds.com. “The Apple Eyes Free feature would address the dangers of drivers taking their hands off the wheel and their eyes off the road to pose a question to Siri or use it to send a message. But it doesn't address the issue of cognitive distraction, which is an activity that diverts the driver’s mental attention away from the task of driving.”

For example: You’re behind the wheel of your car and talking to someone on a Bluetooth device. Suddenly, you realize you passed your exit a couple of miles ago. Your hands and eyes were right where they were supposed to be, but your mind was elsewhere.

“Eyes on the road does not equal mind on the road,” says Bryan Reimer, research scientist in the MIT AgeLab and associate director of MIT's New England University Transportation Center.

The voice command is certainly in demand by consumers. But is it in our best interest to use it? “More investigative research is needed in this area,” Reimer says.

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