Of Robots, Self-Driving Cars and Insurance

Even if fully self-driving cars don't arrive for 10 to 15 years, could robots replace people as drivers in the interim?

I've recently returned from the World Economic Forum annual meeting of the "new champions" in China, where the subject of innovation was high on the agenda. I was relieved to learn that robots can effectively work alongside humans instead of necessarily replacing us (and we can thank the dexterity of our fingers, of all things).

But the meeting got me thinking. With all the current investment into self-driving vehicles (SDVs), could robots ever replace us as drivers?

I deeply care about any developments in motor technology that might affect the risks that our customers are exposed to, and in Zurich we are dedicated to helping them manage these risks. Consequently, we are very interested in the potential for making road usage safer for everyone.

On-board sensors (telematics) and SDVs could be disruptive for society, and they will have a dramatically positive impact in saving lives, reducing accidents and injuries and increasing productivity, as well as benefiting the environment and road infrastructure. However, I expect that it will take at least another 10 to 15 years before SDVs move from controlled tests to a first adoption on some public roads. So, while this is an emerging technology trend to watch out for, it is not the most imminent.

Insurers will play a critical role in ensuring the success of this new technology, both for individuals and businesses, and will continue to protect them against unforeseen events. Given the potential to increase vehicle safety and change the basis of insurance from individual liability to product/vehicle designer liability, SDVs will significantly affect assessment and pricing of current and emerging risks. Specifically, insurers have a very important role to play in the dialogue about SDV liability, which needs to be resolved before SDVs can further evolve.

We will see more innovation in the next 20 years than in the last 100, with the introduction of autonomous vehicles and the connected traveler steering the future of the industry: SDV technology will evolve, rather than arrive fully formed, as assisted-driving (ADAS) technologies are adopted over time. The speed and extent of change will be influenced by regulators, insurance associations and cross-industry bodies, in addition, of course, to customer's needs and acceptance.

At WEF, the Chinese premier Li Keqiang said that his country is moving to a "growth model driven by [both] consumption and investment," and digitalization will be a key enabler. I believe it will also add bottom-up demand to Li's goal of "promoting the development of private banks, financing guarantee and financial leasing" and more open markets (including in insurance!).

Domenico Savarese

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Domenico Savarese

Domenico Savarese has been the global head of proposition development for personal lines and the global lead of telematics for Zurich Insurance since 2013. Savarese has served as program director for Zurich Insurance, head of finance and deputy head of PMO for Kuoni Travel and engagement manager for McKinsey.


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