Auto Insurance

Onlia Sense is an app that rewards you for safe driving. Here’s our review

By: Lisa Coxon on January 16, 2019
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I know I’m a pretty safe driver. I also know that I’m someone who enjoys validation. So, when my editor asked me if I wanted to test out a new app that monitors and rewards safe driving, I said yes pretty quickly.

Onlia Sense uses telematics to monitor certain driving behaviours, like how hard you brake, how quickly you take corners, how fast you accelerate and whether or not you were distracted by your phone during the trip. Once it collects this information, it gives you a score out of 100 for each of the departments (acceleration, braking, cornering, speed, and contextual, which accounts for the driving environment). Then, it averages those scores into a new score out of 100 for that entire trip. To determine your monthly score, then, it averages all of your trip scores for that month. The safer you drive during each trip, the higher your overall monthly score will be, which will help inch you closer to potential monthly perks, like a $5 Starbucks gift card, which is emailed to you. I like lattes. So, I decided to give it a go.

The nice thing about Onlia is that it’s not connected to auto insurance rates. It’s just a free app that rewards safe driving. I started using Onlia in late November 2018. In early December, Onlia started offering auto insurance (its coverage won’t take effect until February 1, 2019). But unlike other auto insurers that offer telematics-driven discounts on premiums, Onlia’s insurance products and the Onlia app work independently of each other. Onlia insurance customers have the option to use the Onlia app for a chance to earn rewards, but so does anyone else — Onlia customer or not.

That’s reassuring because at first blush, telematics can be a little spooky. Who, exactly, is my information being shared with? And can insurance companies use that information against me in the form of higher premiums? I had all these questions when shopping around for car insurance last year and being offered a slight discount by Intact if I enrolled in its my Driving Discount app. The safer I drove while using it, my broker told me, the likelier I would be eligible for discounted premiums upon renewal.

According to Onlia’s Privacy Notice, it won’t share your driving information with insurance companies and/or brokers, use it to get your existing policy cancelled, or use it against you when applying for a new policy. It is possible, however, that in order to improve services, Onlia will share anonymized information (such as age, sex, postal code, driving behaviour scores, and badges or perks earned) with its affiliate partners, which include analytics service providers, advertisers, and loyalty partners.

Enough with the fine print, though. Let’s get into what it’s like to actually drive with the app.


I started using Onlia on my drive home from work one day. The experience, admittedly, took some getting used to. I was very aware that “something” was keeping tabs on me.

There I was waiting at a green light for the vehicle in front of me to make a far-too-slow left turn. “Goooo!” I yelled inside my vehicle, to no one but myself. What immediately followed was a brief moment of paranoia.

Say, Onlia... is there any chance you can hear the driver, too?

Later on in the drive, I came to a red light, where I felt the urge to check my phone (I know, I know). But I didn’t! Knowing Onlia was there watching, listening, spying — however it does what it does — was enough motivation to resist the urge. I reached my apartment, parked my car, and when I got inside, I received a notification that I’d earned a score of 95 out of 100.

With Onlia, the whole point of driving safely is so that you can earn monthly perks. Currently, the perks are all Starbucks gift cards ranging anywhere from $5 to $100 in denomination. Depending on the perk, requirements might involve driving at least 300 kilometres, making a certain number of consecutive “undistracted” trips in each month, or ranking within the top 1% of Onlia’s safe drivers. (A “trip” is any distance farther than 0.5 kilometres.)

Data doesn’t need to be enabled in order for the app to record a trip. That’s welcome news for those of us still trying to survive on a cell phone plan that offers only 1GB of data per month!

Onlia was doing a pretty good job monitoring my driving, but oh how I wished it could also detect the poor driving of those around me. Like when I was approaching the intersection at Dupont and Spadina one morning, and saw another driver actually drive onto the sidewalk to get around another vehicle so that they could be the first in line when the light turned green. Suddenly, I believed I was taking part in a ride-along.

ONLIA, DID YOU SEE THAT GUY?! How many points should he lose for driving on a freakin’ sidewalk? Get him!

I continued using the app throughout December but unfortunately, I didn’t receive any perks that month either, in part because the app didn’t record all of my trips and prevented me from meeting the required criteria. But that’s alright. Onlia is still relatively new, so there’s bound to be a few kinks to work out.

After 15 successful trips with Onlia, here’s what I thought:

What Works Well

  • For up to 24 hours after your trip gets uploaded to the app, you have the option to push a button that says “I was a passenger on this trip,” which deletes it from your history. So, if your significant other is a bit of a speed demon, and you had the app running while they were driving and you were riding along, it won’t show on your trip history. Added bonus? This feature can make for some fun-loving competition to see who’s a safer driver — you or your partner. It would be even better if you could indicate you’re a passenger in advance of the trip, but maybe that’s a future feature.
  • Besides the Starbucks perks, the app also gives you badges after each trip, like “feather foot” and “brake master.” Sure, the badges are useless from a perks perspective, but this kind of positive reinforcement really motivated me to continue to drive safely and actually made me look forward to driving, just so I could get the feedback. Y’know, that whole validation thing.
  • Data doesn’t need to be enabled in order for the app to record a trip. That’s welcome news for those of us still trying to survive on a cell phone plan that offers only 1GB of data per month! You just need to enable your location services and your motion and fitness tracking. You will need to use data, or have a wifi connection, however, to retrieve and upload your trip details to the Onlia server after your trip is completed. So, if you do trips without data on, they’ll be visible only after a data/wifi connection has been made.

What Could Use Some Improvement

  • Right now, all of the perks are Starbucks gift cards. I love a birthday cake pop as much as the next person, but I think a little more variety in the perks department would sweeten the deal for users. According to Onlia, the Starbucks gift cards were the easiest to implement in the short run, and it saw a nice connection between picking up your coffee on the road, and staying awake behind the wheel. It’s aiming to bring about actual cash back and other options in the future. Yay!

    Some of the requirements for perks can be confusing. For instance, I thought that in order to earn the January $5 Starbucks card, I only had to complete 15 consecutive trips without using my phone. But then I saw below that requirement three bullet points: “drive at least 30 trips and 300 kilometres, have 15 consecutive trips recorded with 0 seconds of distracted driving events, verified canadian phone number.” I asked Onlia and it is indeed the three bullet points that need to be met in order to earn the perk. They could make that more clear.
  • The distracted driving feature is a little too sensitive. Onlia considers you “distracted” if your phone moves during your trip. So, if you leave it in the console of your vehicle and it slides around, or you hit a pothole and your phone gets thrown about, it could slap you with “distracted driving.” While this won’t make a huge difference in your driving score, it will set you back in terms of earning perks, because to qualify for most of them, you need a certain number of consecutive undistracted trips. In order to avoid this problem, Onlia suggests keeping your phone in a cup holder.
  • Sometimes, the app doesn’t record every single trip. This is a glitch Onlia is working to correct, and says can happen for a few reasons: if both location services and motion and fitness tracking aren’t activated on a user’s phone; if users close the app too soon after they end their trip (the information needs time to transfer to the app’s server); if your phone’s battery is below 20%; or if the app isn’t running in the background. Satisfying all these requirements can be complicated for average users.

Our final verdict

I wound up turning down the telematics offer from Intact. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it felt a little too invasive. Because Onlia isn’t tied to your premiums in any way, using it felt less risky. I didn’t need to hand over my driver’s licence number or my licence plate or any other identifying information besides my name and phone number. It just seems interested in the psychology behind rewarding people for safer driving.

Onlia operates more like a loyalty program than anything else, which removes a lot of my Big Brother concerns from the picture

The app is available to anyone who wants to use it, regardless of whether or not they purchase Onlia insurance. Onlia may introduce new rewards for those users who also purchase Onlia insurance, but other rewards will still remain available for those who just want to use the app as a means to earn perks for safe driving.

Once I found out that Onlia actually sells insurance, I’ll admit I became a little more weary of continuing to use the app. How will my data be shared now that this company also sells insurance? For example, what if I want to get a quote from Onlia before my insurance policy comes up for renewal this March? Will it be able to use my trip history from when it was just a safe-driving rewards app, to determine my premium? Or will I be assessed using a clean slate?

“The app scores are not used to calculate your premium,” says Bonny Van Rest, Onlia’s Customer Support and Marketing Lead. “Premium is based on driver history (age, years licenced, claims) and vehicle information (kilometres driven, type of vehicle, etc).”

Okay. But another important question: can Onlia detect if I get into an accident?

Currently, no. Though Van Rest says this “would be a nice idea for the future.” That, I think, depends on whether or not you’re the one in the driver’s seat.

Onlia does a good job at monitoring and rewarding safe driving. And compared to other telematics, its model is unique because it’s not rewarding safe drivers with lower premiums; it’s rewarding them with gift cards. In this sense, the Onlia app operates more like a loyalty program than anything else, which removes a lot of my Big Brother concerns from the picture.

When applied to the world of auto insurance, I don’t think telematics is for me. But I can get on board with using the app as a means to encourage safe driving by earning perks. If you feel like using Onlia for your own enjoyment (and hopefully, a free coffee every now and again), then I say go for it. Onlia makes sense for pretty much any driver who takes safety seriously. It’s an even better complement to safe drivers like me who crave some semblance of proof and recognition for playing by the rules. Oh, Type As. Aren’t we the worst?

One more question before I go, Onlia. Let’s say, just hypothetically, that the driver was belting out Beyoncé songs or rapping along with Drake on their drive home one day. Is that something you’d have been able to detect? Asking for a friend...