The Amazing Race to give you car insurance quotes

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on September 5, 2013

From The News Desk

You can't turn on a TV set without coming across a car insurance commercial. From Progressive's perennially perky mascot Flo to Geico's easily recognizable Gecko, auto insurance companies just won't go away.

A new startup launched today in California and Texas to capitalize on that massive market. Insurance Zebra offers an Expedia-like price comparison for auto insurance. No need to trust Flo's creepy proclamations or Gecko's promises of a better life. You enter your information like age, gender, type of car you drive, and when you got your license. Then you decide whether you want basic, premium or superior coverage. Voila! Quotes for different carriers appear for your shopping leisure.

It's a great idea, except for one problem: it already exists. CoverHound is doing the same thing, and it's got a leg up on Insurance Zebra since it offers price comparisons in 46 states already.

Of course, there's probably room for more than one online price comparison platform. Unlike, say, photo sharing or calendar apps, it's not like there's a glut of companies out there racing to tackle auto insurance rates. But insurance is a tricky road to travel, fraught with regulatory potholes and barriers to getting data.

One YC-backed startup -- Leaky -- recently failed at doing the same thing as CoverHound and Insurance Zebra. It quietly shuttered its doors two weeks ago. The vaguely worded message on its homepage hints it may have been acquired by insurance company Navion, but when I reached out for clarification Leaky's co-founder told me he couldn't comment at this time.

The struggles of Leaky and the success of CoverHound don't bode well for Insurance Zebra. At the moment the company is taking the approach Leaky did, by extracting the insurance quote data from the carriers' public filings. That's why Insurance Zebra is only launching in California and Texas at the moment. For every new market they enter they need to hire attorneys and synch their system with the public data. It will be difficult to scale quickly when facing that problem.

In contrast, competitor CoverHound has relationships with big auto insurance carriers, who push CoverHound their updated quote data in real time. As a result, CoverHound comparisons are available in 46 states already, even though the company only launched a little over a year ago.

Since CoverHound offers price comparisons just for its partner carriers, Insurance Zebra could add value for users by comparing more carriers. The company could show prices of smaller, regional insurance providers, for example.

Insurance Zebra certainly seems to be moving in that direction, and on its launch date it already compares 19 providers in California, versus CoverHound's 11. "The insurance industry in the US is complex.  Some companies target high risk consumers, some prefer the low risk, but that makes having a comprehensive mix of options key to getting people the best deal," Insurance Zebra co-founder Adam Lyons says. "If you're comparing less than 10, you are getting duped."

He also pointed to the fact that Insurance Zebra is a much quicker process for getting your quotes, which is true. The startup picks the most important variables that would impact your quote -- like the age you got your driver's license -- and ignores the ones that insurance companies weigh less - like education. That makes getting your quote much faster than CoverHound's process.

Whatever the differences, it's clear that Silicon Valley has arrived at the door of the auto industry. CoverHound President Greg Isaacs says that providers are less than excited by that fact. "Insurance carriers want to know who they're getting in bed with," Isaacs says. "They're still suspicious of all these online comparisons."

[Image courtesy: Ben Salter]