Traditionally, insurers calculate car insurance rates based on complex risk tables, taking into account driver age, driving history, home location, and a rough prediction of the miles driven each year. Under this system, you could leave your car parked for a month and pay the same rate as if you drove it every day.
MetroMile's business model introduces more precise risk evaluation to its insurance package with the Metronome device. However, you don't need to order insurance from MetroMile to get the Metronome -- the company offers the device, which helps you save gas and find your parking spot, for free.
Recently there has been a glut of OBD-II devices that help track your car, alert you when your kids drive too fast, and offer fuel efficiency coaching. At CNET, we have reviewed the Automatic, Zubie, Audiovox Car Connection, and Vehicle Diagnostics by Delphi. Most read diagnostic information from a car's OBD-II port, track the car's location through GPS, and send data to a server via a cell tower connection.
The Metronome works through similar technology, but the business plan behind it is very different. Most of the other devices require a data subscription fee, but MetroMile is funding the devices through its insurance product. Currently, the device works only in California, Washington, Oregon, and Illinois, while MetroMile's insurance is available only in Washington, Oregon, and Illinois. Depending on MetroMile's success, it will roll out the device and insurance plans in more states as it negotiates insurance coverage in compliance with each states' laws.
A MetroMile representative told me that insurance plans begin at a base rate of $20 to $45 per month, plus 2 to 5 cents per mile. Along with insurance, that includes roadside assistance. More information is available on the MetroMile Web site.
MetroMile insists that it does not take into account driving behavior, such as hard braking or acceleration, that can be recorded by OBD-II devices when it calculates the monthly insurance bill.
From my reviews of other OBD-II devices, the Metronome looked very familiar. It is a little block of plastic with an OBD-II plug on one end. A white status light sits on one side. I happened also to be reviewing a 2014 Toyota Highlander, so plugged the device into its port to record some miles.
As the Metronome device sticks out almost 2 inches from the plug port, it might not be a good fit in all cars. In the Highlander, it fit up under the dash, out of the way and pretty much hidden, but in my own BMW Z3, it would stick out into the passenger footwell. I should also note that OBD-II ports only became mandated in cars from 1996 on, so the Metronome won't work in older vehicles.
I had also loaded the MetroMile app on my iPhone. The company provided an account linking the phone to the device. After plugging the Metronome into the Highlander, I drove for a couple of miles to let the device establish its data connection and get a GPS fix. Opening the app, it showed the path I had driven and recorded the number of miles, how long it took, average fuel economy, and fuel cost.