These days everything is “disruptive”. So it’s something of a surprise to come across something that really does seem to be so. But a little plastic tag that looks like one of those things that you put in the car to stop it smelling quite so bad is one of the most disruptive bits of technology I’ve come across for a while, with the potential to transform business models across a wide range of industry sectors.

The DropTag doesn’t look like much – a flat piece of plastic maybe four centimetres across. It has been designed by Cambridge Consultants, a firm of high-tech product developers that match perfectly every preconception implied by the word ‘boffin’. So far there are two use cases, in pay-as-you-drive (PAYD) car insurance and refrigerated transport, though it’s not hard to imagine others. 

Big data binary code futuristic

The tag is designed to be used in conjunction with a smartphone application, and of course with a back-end server that does lots of big data analytics. It’s an alternative (Cambridge Consultants say a ‘complement’) to conventional insurance telematics black boxes, which cost around £300 to supply and install. That makes the boxes uneconomic for all but the most hard-to-insure drivers, most of whom will swap to a new insurer in a few years so as to get a cheaper deal and a cuddly meerkat toy. This high cost base is one of the reasons why usage based insurance, which has been the next big thing for a long time, has remained a niche product.

The DropTag is described as ‘an order of magnitude cheaper’ than a telematics box, though unofficially I’ve heard prices even lower than the £30 that implies. It’s fixed to the windscreen via an adhesive tag, so there are no installation costs, and the screen acts as an amplifier for the vibrations. 

The version of the tag used in the car insurance case contains sensors capable of measuring longitudinal and lateral acceleration, a Bluetooth chip, a coin-cell battery, and hardware and firmware to support some local data storage and processing. Every other kind of functionality has been stripped out to keep the manufacturing simple and the price low.

What is it possible to learn from the data collected by the tag, which after all doesn’t have a GPS or any connections to the car’s electronics? An astonishing amount.

The tag logs events as they happen, stores them, and shares them with a paired smartphone next time it comes within range. Clever algorithms (trademarked by Cambridge Consultants as ‘Journey Fingerprints’) analyse the vibrations measured by the accelerometers in the tag so as to determine engine speed, heavy braking and acceleration, and sudden steering manoeuvres. Wheel vibration and engine vibration data can be distinguished and combined so as to derive vehicle speed, and this can be further enhanced with other data - from an application on the paired smartphone so as to include GPS readings, for example, or with weather information about the relevant date, time and place. The GPS readings can provide an alternative measurement of speed, and these can then be used to cross-calibrate the two different sources against each other.

The sensors can pick up the physical explosions of each cylinder in the engine, which not only offers the prospect of adding an engine diagnostic service, but can also more prosaically confirm that the tag is fixed to the same kind of vehicle as is insured on the policy. The application can detect gear changes, and this provides further information about how the car is being driven. 

It can, of course, measure the extreme vibrations associated with a crash, and use these to determine duration, direction and severity. It could be used to deliver similar functionality to the eCall devices, so that the driver’s smartphone would automatically make an emergency call under certain conditions. Similarly, it can notify the insurer, for whom making early contact with the driver in the case of even a minor accident, and processing the paperwork around a claim, has enormous financial implications. And the tag can also detect more minor bumps, and even door openings and closes, which can be used as a trigger to analyse whether the vehicle’s driver has changed. If you were that way inclined, the whole thing begins to seem just a little bit creepy, though the tag itself does not track the driver’s location. 

Cambridge Consultants are already working with an unnamed British insurer to bring this product to market, and the devices are already in volume production. I suspect that this won’t be the last we see of the DropTag either. As a smart (but not too smart) peripheral it looks to be a harbinger of a new family of Internet of Things devices to be used in conjunction with smartphones and cloud applications.