Volvo's statement last week that it would accept all liability when its cars are in autonomous mode takes the threat to traditional auto insurance to a whole new level. Google and Mercedes have already made similar promises, so we now have three major companies saying they will treat certain car accidents as product liability issues and will take on risk that has historically been the responsibility of individual drivers and auto insurers.
For good measure, Tesla just offered a software download that will let real drivers in real Model S cars operate autonomously on real roads.
The future is upon us.
Obviously, this is just the start. In Churchillian terms, we aren't at the beginning of the end for car insurance, and we aren't even at the end of the beginning; we're at the beginning of the beginning.
For the immediate future, there will be zero effect on auto insurers. Only a small number of drivers will be operating their cars autonomously and only for a portion of their time on the road. Tesla isn't even accepting liability at this point, and auto insurers won't initially even be asked to adjust their rates to reflect the risk that providers of autonomous technology are taking out of the auto policy equation.
A thoughtful column by Craig Beattie argues that two significant steps still have to happen before much risk for car accidents moves to the product liability side of the ledger. First, courts must sort out the many issues that will be raised when the first unlucky person dies in an accident where an autonomous vehicle is at fault. Second, he says, autonomous cars must be in operation long enough that lack of maintenance, rather than product design, becomes the issue that has an autonomous car cause an accident. Courts will then have to sort through who bears the responsibility for that lack of maintenance.
Although I agree with the first point, about settling key issues in court, I'm not so sure the second is a huge deal. I think vanishingly few people will own autonomous cars once we get through the hybrid phase that Volvo, Mercedes and Tesla are taking us into now, where people can switch into and out of driverless mode in what are otherwise traditional cars. Today, cars sit idle more than 95% of the time, so it's far more efficient to share cars operated as part of a fleet, rather than pay to have what is usually someone's most expensive asset, or second-most (after a house), just sit there. A study that Chunka Mui and I cited in our book Driverless Cars: Trillions Are Up for Grabs found that a fleet owner could provide cars to people for 90% less than we pay for car transportation now and still make gobs of money. So I believe that fleets, not individuals, will be responsible for maintenance, removing that as an issue that would be in the province of traditional auto insurance.
I also expect the federal government to get involved at some point. If driverless cars can really reduce the number of traffic deaths on U.S. highways (currently roughly 35,000 a year) by tens of thousands and reduce the number injured in accidents (currently about 2.5 million a year) by many hundreds of thousands, then driverless cars create a clear societal good, and their use should be encouraged. Even if the government decided to be revenue-neutral, it could take the money it currently spends through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. because of auto accidents and could perhaps cover all the liability for accidents caused by autonomous vehicles -- and have a lot left over, besides.
Politics will rear its ugly head when it comes to deciding what government should do and how quickly it can act, but it's hard to run a campaign in favor of injury and death.
So the issue about traditional auto insurance is much less about if it goes away and much more about when.
"When" is a legitimate question. It takes 15 years or more for the full complement of cars on U.S. roads to be replaced, so you could decide that autonomous-car technology won't really be mature for a few years, then start a clock and count out 15 years to a time when roads will be fully autonomous. That approach takes many people's calculations to 2030 and beyond -- by which time today's C-suite members will be safely retired.
But many autonomous technologies, such as forward collision avoidance systems and automated braking, can be installed as a retrofit -- Autonomoustuff, advised by our friend Guy Fraker, is a notable supplier. And the dynamics of auto accidents and insurance change long before every car becomes autonomous. Many studies say 20% to 25% penetration is plenty to cause major changes.
While I won't venture a precise guess about the fate of car insurance, I'll offer an observation: When Chunka and I wrote about driverless cars 2 1/2 years ago, we staked out what was then an extremely aggressive position about how quickly the transition to autonomous vehicles would happen and about how far the ripples would reach, including for auto insurance -- and we may be turning out to have been too cautious.