New Push on Autonomous Vehicles

While autonomous vehicles have faded from the discussion since an Uber killed a pedestrian in 2018, AVs are being positioned for a resurgence.

As I got set to write this post on Sunday night, I saw a tweet recommending that I go to bed early and get plenty of rest so I can wake up early and do my part in what may be the least productive week at least in American history, if not the world's.

Maybe we'll get lucky, and the contours of the results from the U.S. presidential election on Tuesday will be clear enough, quickly enough, that we'll be able to focus on normal activities and not be distracted by legal fights and protests, but I'm not counting on it. My younger daughter, in her third year of law school in DC, got an email from the administration over the weekend recommending that she stock up on food, medicines and any other essential supplies as though she were going to be snowed in for a week. That feels about right.

With the world perhaps about to go on hold, I'll just lob in one, quick thought in this week's Six Things and hope I get to you before we all disappear into Twitter and cable news for however long it takes to sort out the results of the election. The thought is this: While autonomous vehicles have faded from the discussion since an Uber killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in March 2018, AVs are being positioned for a resurgence.

Some of the positioning is official and from the rock-solid actors in the autonomous space. Google's Waymo unit announced last month that it will begin offering fully driverless service (as in, with no safety driver behind the wheel) to customers of its ride-hailing operation in Phoenix. General Motors said that its Cruise unit will begin operating fully driverless vehicles in San Francisco by the end of the year.

Some of the positioning is more speculative. Tesla followed Google/Waymo and GM/Cruise by announcing that it has begun rolling out to customers what it calls Full Self-Driving as part of a beta test that will lead to a general rollout perhaps by year-end. This would be enormous news, if everything goes as advertised, but Elon Musk has long claimed self-driving capabilities that go beyond what his cars can actually do. With the latest announcement, Musk is claiming that his cars will be able to operate autonomously without access to the sort of carefully calibrated maps that Waymo, Cruise and others prepare before letting their vehicles operate in an area and believe are crucial. Musk is also planning to go live even though he doesn't seem to have done the kind of extensive on-road testing that Waymo and Cruise emphasize. Many in the industry still doubt that Tesla's basic technology is up to the task of providing full autonomy; conventional wisdom is that autonomous vehicles require lidar -- essentially, a laser-based form of radar -- while Musk uses cameras but no lidar.

Some of the positioning is subtle -- and this is the part that interests me the most, because I think it may have the biggest impact in the long term. In the wake of the accident that killed Herzberg 2 1/2 years ago, AV companies seemed to fall back and regroup. Now, having done far more rigorous testing, AV companies are starting to resurface with the sort of data that could sell the public on the safety of letting a car drive them around with no one sitting behind the wheel.

Waymo, as usual, led the way, with a report last week on the performance of its driverless cars from the beginning of 2019 through the third quarter of 2020 -- and the data is impressive. The vehicles were extremely safe, and -- importantly, for building long-term trust -- Waymo got specific about its record, using National Highway Traffic Safety Administration standards and going well beyond the press release treatment that usually obscures what actually happened.

Waymo reported 6.1 million miles of automated driving, including 65,000 with no safety driver, and 47 "contact events" -- consisting of 18 actual collisions and 29 incidents where a safety driver intervened to prevent a collision and where Waymo then simulated what would have happened without a safety driver. That's one contact every 130,000 miles, in case you're scoring at home and want to see how your experience compares with that of the Waymo cars.

Thirty of the 47 "events" resulted in no injuries (or were projected to produce none). None produced "severe" or "life-threatening" injuries (or were projected to in the simulations). While the report wasn't specific in assigning blame, it said that "virtually all" incidents resulted from an error by a human driver in the other car or by a pedestrian/cyclist. In the eight "most severe or potentially severe" incidents -- including a car running a red light at 36 mph and T-boning a Waymo vehicle -- Waymo said mildly that "road rule violations" by other drivers contributed.

In the one event where blame likely would have been assigned to Waymo, because it would have rear-ended the car in front of its vehicle, the report suggests that the human driver of the other car was instigating the collision -- its driver swerved in front of the Waymo car, then slammed on its brakes, the sort of behavior that is often reported about drivers showing resentment of AVs. In any case, the safety driver saw what was happening and prevented a collision, which simulation showed would have occurred at 1mph.

There's still a long way to go on AVs, but the announcements by Waymo, Cruise and Telsa show that companies are pressing ahead, and the report by Waymo starts to lay the intellectual groundwork for what I think will be a strong claim for public trust. In any case, after 2 1/2 years of lying low, the AV companies are back to making public arguments for themselves, and the insurance industry will have to react -- next week, or the week after, or the week after that, once the craziness from the election settles down.

Stay safe.


P.S. Speaking of public trust, if you haven't voted already, please do so. We're better as a people, as a nation, the closer we get to 100% participation by eligible voters.

P.P.S. Here are the six articles I'd like to highlight from the past week:

Property Claims: It’s Time for Innovation

Those that solve for the dynamics of the many opportunities are likely to be the future industry leaders.

Driving Into the Future of Telematics

Connected vehicles, and their shared language of data delivered through an exchange, are the future of telematics.

The Future of Underwriting

A survey finds that nearly everyone expects big changes in underwriting. But what will different look and feel like? And how ready are we?

Asia: Latest Source of Opportunities

Think of giants like Ping An; innovations such as TenCent's Waterdrop; and ecosystem plays such as Rakuten.

State of Commercial Insurance Market

Every company today is different than it was six months ago. All risk profiles have likely changed.

Best AI Tech for P&C Personal Lines

The value rankings indicate that user interaction technologies fueled by AI are at the top of the list for personal lines insurers.

Paul Carroll

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Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is the editor-in-chief of Insurance Thought Leadership.

He is also co-author of A Brief History of a Perfect Future: Inventing the Future We Can Proudly Leave Our Kids by 2050 and Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn From the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and the author of a best-seller on IBM, published in 1993.

Carroll spent 17 years at the Wall Street Journal as an editor and reporter; he was nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He later was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.