Tag Archives: assisted driving

Of Robots, Self-Driving Cars and Insurance

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!).

Assisted Driving Is Taking Over

The power of 35.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimates that automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning features could curtail injury claims by as much as 35%. The California Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that in 35% of crashes the brakes were not applied. It is striking that these two numbers match.

These savings are not surprising. Automatic braking will avoid some accidents altogether. When an accident nevertheless occurs, automatic braking may greatly reduce the speed on impact. As a matter of simple physics, a reduction in speed results in an exponential reduction in the kinetic energy that must be absorbed in a collision. The formula, for those interested, is Kinetic Energy = 1/2mv2, where “m” is the mass of the vehicle and “v” is the vehicle’s velocity. Thus, a vehicle that collides at 30 mph has only one-fourth the kinetic energy of a vehicle that collides at 60 mph.

While automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning are standard in some luxury cars and are available as options in many others, 10 automakers have agreed with the National Highway Traffic Administration and the IIHS to establish a time frame for making assisted driving features standard in all cars.

These are significant developments for insurers and for public policy makers.

For insurers, a 35% decrease in injury claims will result in a significant reduction in premium. This may be offset, at least in part, by an increase in the cost of repair for more sophisticated vehicles and the continuing increase in healthcare costs.

Public policy makers should contemplate the potential benefits of a 35% reduction in injuries and deaths because of assisted driving. At present, highway deaths in the U.S. account for 33,000 to 35,000 deaths per year (depending on how one correlates deaths to auto accidents). Over 10 years this is the equivalent to the population of some major cities-St. Louis, Minneapolis, Des Moines or the city of your choice. A 35% reduction would reduce deaths from 33,000 to 21,450. Every year, 11,550 more people would continue to go about their lives. Add a similar reduction in the more than 2.5 million injuries per year, and the public benefit is overwhelming.

These benefits only accrue as assisted driving features find their way into the fleet. This can be a slow process. It is estimated that electronic stability control, which has been available as an option for many years and has been mandatory since 2012, will not reach 95% penetration until 2029. This is because the average age of automobiles is a bit more than 11 years. Thus, anything that can hasten the adoption of these safety features (and others that are to come) benefits everyone.

Encouraging adoption directly implicates insurance. Auto insurance is one of the more expensive costs of owning a car. The cost of these safety features, either as an option or as a standard feature, is also an expense of owning a car. It is critical that savings from the lower frequency and severity of accidents be rapidly passed on to car owners in lower insurance rates, which will help offset the added cost and promote more rapid adoption.

Even when assisted driving features become standard, which will be some years in the future, the majority of the existing fleet may still be on the road for another 11 years or so. Passing substantial insurance savings to potential purchasers will make retiring the old heap more palatable.

Policy makers and regulators can play an important part in facilitating adoption of these safer cars. Laws and regulations that may impede the rapid distribution of insurance savings to insureds should be streamlined. Likewise, some driver-centric rating systems that may distort rates by artificially depressing the weight given to the safety of the vehicle should be reviewed.

Self-driving vehicles of the future have captured the attention of the public and the insurance industry. While many have been looking toward that day, enormous improvements in safety-critical technology are taking place right now. In a sense, the future is already here. Cars are taking over many safety-critical functions from their more fallible drivers. Insurers and policy makers must adjust.

Those interested in a lengthier treatment of this topic can read this article by Thomas Gage and Richard Bishop. And here is a Bloomberg article on a Boston Consulting Group study of the issue.