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Will Technology Kill Auto Insurance?

The auto insurance industry has been experimenting with technology and tools that are completely changing the way we think about cars.

Self-driving vehicles, ride-sharing and vehicles that include their own insurance in the sticker price are all recent innovations — innovations whose long-term effects are not yet known.

With the rise of autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing came questions about liability and its related coverage: Who will insure self-driving cars? Who is liable in a ride-sharing accident scenario? As vehicle fleets replace individual ownership, who should carry the coverage necessary to pay medical bills, repair costs and other losses in case of a crash?

The changes on the horizon have prompted some commentators, like Deutsche Bank’s Joshua Shanker, to predict that today’s auto insurance industry simply won’t exist in 20 years.

Is the demise of auto insurance imminent? Is it likely? Here, we explore the pressures on traditional auto insurance and the ways the field may shift in the next one to two decades.

Self-Driving Cars: Who Will Insure Them?

Self-driving cars are predicted to change the driving habits of entire nations — and to significantly reduce the cost of auto insurance. A 2015 study by Metromile and Ferenstein Wire estimated that self-driving vehicles would save their owners nearly $1,000 a year on insurance premiums on average, according to Gregory Ferenstein.

The study was based in part on data showing that, as of 2015, none of Google’s self-driving vehicles had been in an accident caused by the technology, only by human error, reported Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic. Since then, there have been notable instances of tech errors leading to accidents, including the March 2018 death of a pedestrian. More on that in a minute.

Still, many commentators have drawn the same conclusion from the data: Prevented accidents mean prevented claims, which will reduce premiums. Even big name investors like Warren Buffett have made such predictions with regard to self-driving vehicles, CNBC’s Elizabeth Gurdus reports.

See also: Industry 4.0: What It Means for Insurance  

The Reality on the Ground

Yet the reality may not be so easy to achieve. For one thing, self-driving cars have yet to be tested in the same wide range of conditions human drivers face daily, says Peter Hancock, a professor of psychology and engineering at the University of Central Florida. Seeing how these cars handle bad roads, inclement weather and similar challenges is essential to understanding whether they’ll really replace human drivers — and how to insure them if they do.

In 2015, Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson said that Volvo would accept “full liability” for any losses occurring when a Volvo vehicle was in full autonomous mode, indicating a future in which liability coverage for self-driving vehicles is a question of product liability, not driver behavior.

Yet, to date, other automakers haven’t rushed to join Volvo in making a similar promise. While Google and Mercedes have self-insured, as a rule “auto manufacturers are not that keen on taking on the insurance risk,” says Rick Huckstep at the Digital Insurer. Automakers have spent billions of dollars on developing automated technologies, and “they didn’t do this to then have to carry 100% liability for whatever happens on the road.”

Revising Timelines

Even if self-driving cars adopt a commercial liability or product liability approach to coverage, thus eliminating the need for individual drivers’ coverage, a 10- to 15-year timeline may still be ambitious, says Simon Walker, group chief executive at First Central Group. The technology, while ever more widely tested, is not yet commonplace.

Determining regulatory, licensing and liability questions will likewise take years; attempts to start that process now have met with uncertainties because the tech isn’t in common use. Customers will need to gain confidence in autonomous vehicles, and their driver-required cars will have to age their way onto the scrap heap.

All this is unlikely to happen in just 10 years, or even in 20. And with 10 to 20 years, auto insurers have time to adapt. Some have already begun, in fact. Julia Kollewe at the Guardian cites Adrian Flux, a U.K. insurer, which in 2016 announced what it called the first-ever auto insurance policy for driverless vehicles. The policy covers not only the conventional situations other policies address, but also autonomous-vehicle-specific topics like software updates, satellite or navigation system failure and loss or damage from hacking.

If this U.K. company can do it, says Julia Eddington at the Zebra, so can U.S. companies, although they may face more complexity due to the overlapping world of state and federal regulations. As of mid-2018, however, 29 states had enacted driverless vehicle liability laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which could pave the way for faster adaptation by existing auto insurers.

Improved Safety Features: Are Crash-Proof Cars Possible?

Self-driving cars aren’t the only way that technology may end the need for auto accident coverage. Safety technology is improving, as well, and Volvo’s promise to cover liability for its cars while in autonomous mode isn’t the only goal the automaker has set to change the vehicle liability landscape.

In 2008, Volvo announced an ambitious plan: to create a crash-proof vehicle that would result in zero injuries or deaths, and to do it by 2020. In 2013, according to Viknesh Vijayenthiran at Motor Authority, and again in 2016, Volvo announced its intention to stay on track to create its injury- and death-free vehicles by 2020.

Volvo still has a little more than a year to reach this goal, and its statistics indicate the company is on the right track. Volvo won a 2018 Which? Award in the U.K. for “the company’s solid safety record that put it ahead of other short-listed candidates.”

Awards and strong statistics are evidence that Volvo is moving in the right direction when it comes to safety, but until this technology is perfected, insurance coverage remains a necessity — and completely autonomous driving technology still has a long way to go.

A Car and Its Coverage: A Package Deal?

Tesla is also betting on the safety of its technological advances, and in a way that presents an additional challenge to traditional insurance companies: by including auto insurance coverage in the sticker price of their vehicles.

Tesla is experimenting with selling “insurance and maintenance included” vehicles in Asia, according to Business Insider’s Danielle Muoio. The price for insurance and maintenance incorporates Tesla’s data about the car’s safety features, including its autopilot system. By including the insurance price in the car, Tesla says, the company believes it offers a better deal to consumers, because many auto insurance companies don’t account for the autopilot system in the same way Tesla does.

Tesla may have a point. “If you’re hoping to shave down your premiums, buying an automated vehicle might not be the right move,” Shift Insurance head of business development Raphael Locsin tells Entrepreneur. However, some companies do consider certain other driver assistance features, like electronic stability, when calculating discounts.

Insurance companies’ hesitation may be prudent at the moment. A March 2018 Tesla crash with the autopilot turned on proved fatal for the driver, according to Jack Stewart at Wired.

Selling vehicles, autonomous or otherwise, with the insurance included in the sales price offers a hybrid approach between purchasing coverage from traditional auto insurers and placing the burden on automakers to cover their vehicles as consumer products. While Tesla has gambled on the approach, it remains the only automaker to do so; even the products-liability model has had more buy-in from the makers of self-driving vehicles and their technology.

“Insurance included” models seem the least likely of the self-driving insurance options to threaten the traditional auto insurance industry in the next two decades. Yet they indicate a willingness of companies to take risks to try new models, which are worth noticing.

What to Expect in the Near Future

Self-driving vehicles piloted by technology that prevents accidents is a powerful vision of the future. It provides a sense of excitement and hope.

It also provides challenges to traditional auto insurance companies, many of which are already struggling with auto insurance premiums in a world where many people have eliminated vehicles from their lifestyles. For a $220 billion industry that supports more than a quarter million jobs, the threat is significant, says Patrick Lin at Forbes.

Yet technology’s death knell for auto insurance may not be as close as it appears.

Driver involvement in vehicle operation is likely to be a necessity for many more years, and drivers will need insurance as long as they must take the wheel. Human error will continue to be a factor in accidents. And demand for insurance against theft, acts of nature and technological glitches will persist even in a world where cars do their own driving.

New Applications for Drones

Drones are becoming widely used in a variety of industries, including insurance. As mentioned last week, millions are expected to be sold in 2017, with PwC calculating the global market for the commercial application of drones at more than $127 billion. So how are insurers using drones right now, and what opportunities are arising?

Though drones could theoretically benefit many different aspects of insurance operations, to date the most common application has been roof inspections conducted by certified insurance assessors before payment is made on claims for storm or hail damage. Traditionally, assessors use ladders to climb onto roofs and sometimes need harnesses if the roof is high or steep enough. A manual inspection can take half a day.

See also: Drones + Gig Economy = Win for Insurance  

A 20-minute drone inspection captures around 350 images of the property in question and provides data that can be used to identify moisture trapped in roofs, produce 3D models and elevation maps, calculate flood or wildfire risk and derive property measurements.

This gives insurers several good reasons to carry out these drone inspections. Here are some notable examples in the area:

  • Erie Insurance, an American traditional insurer active in the auto, home, commercial and life insurance sectors, is generally credited as the first insurer to use drones to inspect roof damage. It received approval from the American Federal Aviation Authority in the spring of 2015.
  • Betterview is an insurtech devoted to using drones for property inspections. The company announced this April that it had executed 6,000 rooftop inspections in the last two years and then signed a partnership agreement with Loss Control 360, which makes software for insurance carriers and inspectors. “We have seen insurers allocate budget dollars in 2017 to move from concept to real production use,” Betterview CEO David Lyman told the Insurance Journal. “In 2018, we expect to see a significant ramp up in the use of drones by insurers and reinsurers.”
  • Travelers has used drones to inspect damaged roofs since 2015. The carrier provides insurance-specific drone pilot training to its claims teams; by May this year, it had trained 150 pilots and expected to train hundreds more before the end of the year.

But it’s not just roof damage that drones are being used for.

Beyond roof inspection

The French global insurer AXA reported in 2016 that it was using drones in a variety of applications in France, Switzerland, Belgium, Mexico and Turkey. The business case is simple— to assess claims, drones can go places that are risky for humans: into fire-damaged buildings, into places where chemical toxicity is suspected and into manufacturing plants or other areas that have been subject to natural or other disasters.

AXA is developing tools and platforms to use drone images more efficiently, including this new data source in its claims adjustment processes.

Coupling imaging technologies with advanced analytics is proving useful across industries. Drones are being used in disaster management, geographic mapping, crop monitoring, supply chain monitoring, storm tracking and weather forecasting, to maintain power lines, monitor traffic flows and conduct surveillance—all instances that may assist insurers to dynamically adapt and innovate on insurance products and risk cover, especially for short-term cover.

Country Financial is, for example, using drones to identify issues in fields that are hard to spot with just “boots on the ground.” It says its crop claims adjusters using drones can scout three times as many acres as an adjuster on foot. This technology also gives farmers more information to consider when choosing how much crop insurance coverage they need, the company says, and it means more insurance plans can be based on enterprise-level data rather than county numbers.

Evolving drone technology

While these examples provide a snapshot of the growing use of drones in P&C insurance inspections, they also highlight some of the limitations of current applications.

Regulators require drone pilots to maintain line-of-sight during a flight, limiting the range of a drone’s flight. New regulations—and wider use of fixed-wing drones—could dramatically boost this range, with corresponding increases in the amount of property a single flight could cover. Technology and regulation could also conceivably enable greater autonomy for drones in the future, allowing a single pilot to oversee multiple drones at once.

See also: What Is the Future for Drones?  

A recent Businessinsider.com article highlights the emergence of generation seven of the technology, with the announcement of 3DRobotics’ all-in-one drone, Solo. These next-generation smart drones have built-in safeguards and compliance tech, smart accurate sensors, platform and payload interchangeability, automated safety modes, enhanced intelligent piloting models and full autonomy, full airspace awareness, auto action (take-off, land and mission execution). Imagine the future opportunities these drones will open up for insurers.

Zenefits’ Problems Are Real but Not Fatal

Zenefits has hit a rough patch. Given the insults the company’s CEO, Parker Conrad, has heaped on brokers, the schadenfreude percolating through the broker community is understandable. Yet declarations of Zenefits’ demise are premature.

Zenefits raised $500 million in May at a valuation of $4.5 billion. At the time, Conrad claimed the company was “on track to hit annual recurring revenue of $100 million by January 2016.” That was then.

Now, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Zenefits is falling short of its earlier revenue projection. According to the Journal and Business Insider, through August Zenefits’ revenue came in closer to $45 million, and the $100 million annual revenue figure is likely out of reach. In response, Zenefits is reportedly instituting a hiring freeze and imposing pay cuts. The latter step is cited as a reason at least eight executives left Zenefits.

In light of the news, in August or September Fidelity Investments reduced the value of its Zenefits investment by 48%, estimating the company was now worth about $2.34 billion. That’s a seismic event: In May, Fidelity thought Zenefits was worth $4.5 billion. Just five months, later Fidelity thinks this was being a tad optimistic… if by “a tad” we mean “$2.16 billion.”

In an interview with Business Insider, Conrad admits Zenefits is unlikely to keep his promise of $100 million of recurring revenue this year. However, he claims Zenefits continues to hire (although not as fast as in the past) and is happy with its revenue growth — “more than $80 million of revenue under contract” (which, it should be noted, is not the same as saying “we’ve taken in $80 million so far this year,” but maybe that’s what he meant). Conrad also asserts that Zenefits is getting “closer and closer” to being cash flow-positive, although he doesn’t expect it to get there until 2017 at the earliest.

Missing his $100 million commitment and having to address the subsequent fallout is no doubt adding to Conrad’s stress levels. Because Conrad went out of his way to insult community-based benefit brokers on Zenefits’ way up, the joy that brokers are taking in his discomfort now is to be expected — and is arguably earned.

Should brokers assume Zenefits is no longer a threat, however? No. It is still bringing in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. According to what I’ve heard, only about 60% of this revenue comes from commissions. An ever-increasing portion of Zenefits’ revenue flows from fees earned by selling third-party services or its own non-commission services. Zenefits launched its own payroll service, so its non-commission revenue will continue to climb. Zenefits may not be valued at $4.5 billion any more, but it is still valued at more than $2 billion. And while no CEO is happy when a serious investor marks down his company by nearly 50%, Conrad says Zenefits won’t be out raising money anytime soon. As a practical matter, the impact of the devaluation on Zenefits is minimal.

In short, Zenefits is sticking around.

But I predict Zenefits is in for a rough time. Direct competitors like Namely and Gusto are raising money and stepping up. Community-based brokers are increasingly leveraging technology. (Full disclosure: Im co-founder of the company launching NextAgency, software that will help brokers level the playing field against Zenefits, so I’m delighted to point out this trend.)

While new initiatives like the payroll offering will create revenue streams for Zenefits, they also carry significant risk. Current partners will view Zenefits as a potential competitor. Management will be distracted from the company’s core business. New skills and expertise need to be acquired. There’s something to be said for focus, and Zenefits may be losing its.

Schadenfreude is German for deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others. That Zenefits’ current problems generate this impulse in the brokers they’ve insulted should surprise no one. That Zenefits will face challenges, problems and setbacks moving forward is inevitable. That community-based brokers should continue to take the threat Zenefits represents seriously is wise.

Keep Your Eye on the Fourth P

If you ever took a marketing class, you probably remember the four “P’s” – product, price, promotion and place. While attention to all of these is vital to business success (including one or two new ones added over the years), the fourth P, place (which really is about distribution) has been getting a lot of attention lately in the insurance industry. From traditional channels with agents and brokers to new channels like Google, Compare.com, Gobear.com, Walmart and others, the place where prospects and clients meet insurers is worth a fresh look and an open discussion.

Celent recently reported that many insurers are investing in their distribution capabilities to spur growth and retention by adding or expanding channels and markets and optimizing existing channels. Celent predicted a steady market for investment in distribution management systems from 2014-2016 (“Deal Trends and Projections in the Distribution Management Systems Market,” September 2015). Gartner has indicated distribution management is one of its hot inquiry topics for 2016.

As I wrote in my last blog, distribution might also be the most tangible touchpoint to customers for product inquiries and purchases, outside of paying bills or making the occasional policy change. Interactions with our distribution channels are key opportunities to create positive customer experiences that lead to loyalty and additional sales down the road. Because only a fraction of our customers will have a claim in any given year, few will have the opportunity to experience the true value of insurance. That places the “burden of value proof” upon insurers, to continually reinforce protective messages, supplement with preventive knowledge and reiterate the comfort customers can have in knowing they are insured.

Distribution has always been the prime communicator of these messages and an extremely important part of the insurance value chain. Channels we use have evolved over the centuries, as insurance itself has evolved. (See the recent report from III, “Buying Insurance: Evolving Distribution Channels,” for a good history lesson). But numerous forces inside and outside of our industry have been rapidly transforming this important element of the insurance business model. As an industry, we can’t afford to think about distribution in the “usual” old ways.

Traditional channels are still vitally important, but having a broad array of distribution options is even more important in today’s marketplace. With consumers’ shopping/buying preferences and behaviors changing based on more progressive industries and companies, options and alternatives are critically important to capture and retain customers. While the digital revolution and fast-emerging technologies are intensifying this change, they have not replaced traditional agent channels, despite the predicted demise of the agent channel a few years ago.

Instead, consumers are using multiple channels (traditional and non-traditional) for shopping, buying and policyholding processes. In many cases, it comes down to whichever channel is easiest or whichever channel seems to fit the moment when the individual is ready to transact. This echoes a trend within all industries. For example, research by Deloitte reported by Business Insider found that consumers shop for groceries on average across five different types of stores, no longer needing a traditional grocery store when one is not convenient. Consumers are now buying groceries at warehouse clubs and super-stores like Costco and Walmart, where one-stop-shopping can save time (CBS Moneywatch). For retail suppliers, this means courting any and all potential distribution outlets.

Likewise, insurance needs to expand distribution channels beyond the traditional channel silos of direct mail, captive agent and independent agents to a new model, an omni-channel ecosystem that seamlessly interacts with and meets customers’ ever-expanding expectations. This doesn’t mean that insurers should rush out and go on a channel shopping spree. It does mean insurers must build a strategic action plan for their unique channel ecosystem using relevant channels, partners and capabilities that work cohesively together to optimize the customer relationship. The irony of this is that while insurers are doing this to make things easier for their customers, it can make things a lot more complex for insurers. Enter the growing need for effective distribution management, and systems that improve carriers’ capabilities to manage multiple channels and multiple factors. These factors include:

Compliance: Automation of key producer lifecycle processes, data capture and reporting saves time and ensures accuracy and timeliness.

Compensation: Moving from reliance on core systems and manual tracking and calculations in spreadsheets doesn’t just save time and increase accuracy, it also enables more targeted and creative programs to drive performance of your channels.

Performance: In addition to influencing producer behaviors, the right distribution management system makes available the volume and granularity of data you need to enable flexible reporting, as well as more advanced analytics like segmentation and predictive modeling. Majesco’s recent research report, “A Path to Insurance Distribution Leadership: New Channels and New Data for Innovative Outcomes,” provides some useful insights into how companies are using data to improve the performance of their distribution channels.

Self-Service: Portals for your producers and channel partners give them the transparency that’s vital for trusted, mutually beneficial relationships. Developing e-service capabilities for customers and agents was a high priority among insurers Majesco surveyed for the recent research report, “Digital Readiness in Insurance.”

You can have the best insurance products, pricing and advertising to build your market presence, but if you don’t have a distribution ecosystem underpinned by a robust distribution management system to optimize and maximize these channels, your customer growth and retention potential will remain limited. If it is difficult to effectively optimize compliance, compensation and performance of your channels, you could end up losing to competitors that can. Distribution management systems are no longer considered back-office systems; they are front-office enablers in today’s radically changing marketplace. That brings us back to the concept of place. Just like long-established retailers will remodel every couple of years, the place you meet your customers can’t remain untouched without your organization and its products losing their feeling of value.

Are you developing a distribution ecosystem? Do you have the right distribution management solution to optimize your established and newly developed channels to help you grow? Celent and Gartner are telling the industry that your competitors are considering and implementing modern distribution management systems. If you haven’t been considering distribution management modernization, now is the time to begin the conversation.

Made in China: Some Surprising Innovations

The dawn of a new industry and the Next-Gen Insurer is unfolding, influenced by levers of change from within and outside the industry, accelerated by an explosion of data and new technologies and fueled by innovation. Some insurers are embracing innovation to inspire a renaissance of competitiveness and customer value, reinvigorating what made them successful leaders in the first place or making them new market leaders of the future. There is an unparalleled opportunity to ignite a new future that is powered by the human imagination – and that is what China insurers are doing, as indicated in a recent article titled “Chinese Insurance Policies Cover Some Really Bizarre Things,” by Clare Baldwin and Diana Chan in Business Insider.

While the insurance policies being created may seem bizarre to some, they epitomize the spirit of product innovation, personalization and customer engagement that are identified as key trends in SMA’s research, The Next-Gen Insurer: Fueled by Innovation. Understanding rapidly changing customer demographics, needs and expectations is critical. The ability to reinvent the way to develop, package and deliver products and services is vital for insurers if they are to be relevant, let alone successful, in today’s new digital world.

So why are these innovative policies important for U.S. insurers to understand and consider?

First, the inspiration for innovation can come from other markets and geographies. The inspiration may stimulate the imagination, prompting new ideas and uncovering opportunities that can be built upon. In many cases, the thinking in markets, such as China, with less-strict regulations can help identify, incubate and market test new ideas. With more customers researching insurance on the Internet, they will see these innovative products and ask for them … and ask you why you don’t have them, or something similar.

Second, taking an innovative approach to meeting smaller, more defined needs provides a great entryway to other insurance products. What a great way to introduce your brand as innovative and personal.

In general, with trends like the connected car, driverless car, connected home, connected health, sharing economy and more affecting the future of traditional insurance products such as auto, home and health, to name a few, insurers must be as creative as possible in adapting to the shifting landscape.

Interestingly, niche-focused insurance products like those in China have been emerging in other areas in Asia Pacific, with “hole in one” insurance, and in Europe, with “wedding” insurance. Zurich’s wedding insurance, which covers all of Europe and which covers the costs of canceling or postponing a wedding, is an example of such a product and has been a big success in terms of sales, marketing and brand recognition. In the U.S., Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway insured the $1 billion prize to anyone who accurately picked the winner of every 2014 NCAA tournament game, a competition sponsored by Quicken Loans. And while no one picked the winners in the brackets, Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway got a lot of coverage.

Each of these examples engages customers in a fun way while also meeting a specific need. They have an element of “the cool factor” associated with them, something profoundly needed in an industry deemed stodgy.

So, while the article about quirky Chinese insurance policies seems to take an “aren’t they cute” approach, the examples are actually highly relevant for the customers they target, not to mention helping to educate a large population about the broader value of insurance. The massive interest in these untapped nooks and crannies exposes the fact that there are ready customers, regardless of geography.

The insurance industry has offered personalized, unique products in the past to selected individuals, but not on a mass basis. Remember when Tina Turner’s legs were insured, David Beckham’s legs were insured, Keith Richards’ hands or Bruce Springsteen’s voice … all for millions of dollars? The difference here is that these are high-value, highly customized situations that were all one-off products. In today’s digital world, with the customer demanding personalized offerings, mass product personalization will increasingly be a key driver in product innovation, shifting the industry away from the legacy of mass production of personal insurance products. Fueling this change will be customer demographics and preferences.

With product personalization, insurers need to develop products or product components that customers can shape to their unique needs – within days or weeks – according to new customer expectations. The mass personalized products will include new services that will strengthen customer loyalty and retention. These trends will help insurers differentiate themselves in the market and open market opportunities that can drive revenue and profitability.

So instead of the “naughty child insurance” offered in China, maybe it could be child care insurance that covers the costs of holding the child’s place while the child is out because of significant illness. Instead of buying insurance for smog’s ruining your holiday, you could buy insurance against weather such as hurricanes or snowstorms that could cause cancellation or limits to your vacation. And instead of covering pregnancy before the honeymoon, insurance could cover a health issue or death of a key wedding participant that could affect the wedding plans, and insurance could be the thing that could make a painful time a little less painful.

Major forces are converging that are fundamentally changing the entire paradigm of insurance, creating the Next-Gen Insurer in the process. Today’s insurers are faced with choices that are more intense, complex and transformational than ever before. An era of new leaders will be determined by their ability to respond to change and become innovators, embracing and capitalizing on each new wave of disruption.

Some of the waves with vast possibilities will be product innovation and mass personalization. Insurers in other geographies are catching the wave of customer needs and expectations. Are you prepared to ride the wave of mass personalization? If not, your competitors will!