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Is 2015 the year for driverless cars?

Published: 09/3/15

Last year Business Secretary Vince Cable announced two major initiatives that could see fully autonomous vehicles on UK roads.

The first was a £10million competition for three UK cities to host the first driverless car trials. And secondly; a review into current road regulations to determine how they must adapt for the UK to remain at the forefront of driverless car technology.

This followed Mr Cable’s announcement that 20 self-driving ‘pods’ would be tested in Milton Keynes in 2015.

The government has made clear its intention to establish the UK as a centre for research and development into driverless technologies, with the express view of creating high-skilled jobs whilst addressing issues of pollution, congestion and road safety.

There may be no defining moment when the driverless car ‘arrives’, but 2015 may well be the turning point when driverless technology gains genuine traction.

Technologies that could revolutionise fleet insurance

Cars that park themselves, perform emergency stops, even steer round bends – all with zero driver input. These are not technologies in the pipeline, but are already on our roads today.

Automotive manufacturers are continually publicising their development of such technologies, and many are showing real potential for our fleet customers.

Mercedes, for example, recently revealed plans for its ‘Future Truck 2015’ that combines a range of autonomous technologies that could revolutionise road freight transport.

And Swedish manufacturer Volvo is making significant contributions to the SATRE project, which is developing convoys of driverless ‘road trains’ that follow a human-driven pilot vehicle.

Risk management benefits of autonomous technology

In particular, experts are anticipating that driverless features will greatly improve road safety. Much has been said about autonomous emergency braking (AEB) – a feature now a near pre-requisite on all vehicles wishing to achieve a five star Euro NCAP safety rating.

Peter Shaw, Chief Executive of Thatcham, the motor insurers’ automotive research centre, said in a recent interview: “[AEB] has the potential to be as important a breakthrough as the seatbelt in terms of vehicle safety.” Thatcham’s research predicts that fitting all cars with AEB from 2015 could result in 17,000 fewer deaths and serious injuries by 2025, as well as reducing insurance premiums by 10%.

Nick Kitchen, Head of Casualty and Motor (Commercial Broker) at Zurich, says: “Autonomous safety features already form part of the Association of British Insurers’ categorisation of vehicles, which in turn feeds into insurer pricing models. Where these technologies are used effectively to reduce collisions, then that will ultimately be reflected in a customer’s claims experience.”

Wider implications for brokers to consider

As with all new technologies, though, there may well be unintended consequences. For example, as vehicles become increasingly digitised it exposes them to new cyber threats, such as remote carjacking.

Even now we risk developing an over-reliance on autonomous features. If individuals are paying less attention to their driving, as they believe safety features will prevent a collision, then are we really making our roads safer?

Andy Price, Motor Fleet Practice Leader (Europe) at Zurich, says: “Whilst many of these new technologies have the potential to reduce collisions, it is important that customers don’t assume that these are a ‘silver bullet’ to reduce claims, as there is only so much that they can do. They must allow and encourage their drivers to drive safely, using the technology as a backup to help them if they make an error.”

So, as these technologies become more commonplace we’ll be talking to our clients to try to get over the message that these features aren’t viewed as a solution themselves, but as a contribution to a wider, more sophisticated, risk management capability.

Is the UK ready for computers to take the wheel?

Whilst the potential benefits may seem clear, are we ready to go driverless?

A recent AA survey suggests that we may be. As many as 63% of respondents thought they would be as safe as human drivers, with 62% saying they were suitable for UK roads.

Whilst the potential benefits may seem clear, are we ready to go driverless?

And despite initial hesitation, as the equipment advances, and the unintended consequences are addressed, the benefits will soon outweigh the risks.

Zurich’s Andy Price has worked with a customer who has already retrofitted its fleet with some of these technologies, but says: “It is not always the technology but how it is used that will lead to improvements – management has a crucial role to play.”

How will insurers determine liability?

One of these questions is that of liability. How would liability be apportioned if the car itself causes the collision? Is the operator liable? Or should product liability be attributed to possible shortcomings in the vehicle’s manufacture or the programming of its software? Will driverless models be given legal personhood – similar to that of corporations – thus protecting their owners and manufacturers from prosecution?

These issues are so fundamental to how our legal, regulatory and insurance systems will operate, that they will require legislative intervention; and the government is already consulting with representatives of the insurance, and other, sectors to address them.

Whether or not the public is ready to go driverless, we are quickly moving in that direction. We are rapidly adopting autonomous features, and the government is paving the way for UK roads to accommodate them.

There are many anticipated benefits to driverless technology. These include a reduction in collisions, increased fuel efficiency and better traffic management. But, as with all emerging technologies, the wider implications are uncertain. In particular, autonomous vehicles pose many unanswered questions for the insurance sector.

With major projects planned for 2015, brokers may wish to start considering the implications of driverless technologies as part of a wider risk management capability. We will need to wait to see exactly what the future holds; but the wheels are in motion, and driverless cars are heading our way.

Download Zurich’s Driverless Cars Infographic here.

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