Tag Archives: driverless vehicles

Autonomous Trucks, Arriving in Texas

The world of self-driving trucks continues to expand as new technologies are being tested and more companies are emerging with revolutionary autonomous fleets of semi-truck tractors that increase safety and efficiency. There’s no denying that these 80,000-pound tractor trailer rigs, which number over 2 million in the U.S., will disrupt the trucking industry as fleets convert to autonomous units. It won’t be long before it will be normal to see these special trucks on the highway. Experts say seven years or less. Already, Australia’s Rio Tinto has 73 huge autonomous mining trucks hauling iron 24 hours a day.

In 2017, the Texas legislature passed a pair of bills legalizing both driverless cars and trucks, allowing these new self-driving trucking operations to deliver cargo to every corner of the Lone Star state. Unlike other states, such as California, self-driving developers don’t need special permits to test in Texas. Executives with several autonomous trucking firms say that they are working closely with Texas authorities, who, supporters say, are big boosters of trucking tech. Even the U.S. Postal Service has tested transporting mail there via robotic trucks. Texas has also kicked off a number of U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) projects to promote advanced truck tech with funding from a federal grant that will enhance the safety of all autonomous vehicles in the state.

A year-old startup company in Dallas, called Kodiak Robotics, will be running its driverless trucks on roundtrip hauls of more than 400 miles between Dallas and Houston. For now, Kodiak will have a “safety driver” available in the cab to make sure the robotic trucks don’t misbehave, but eventually the truck fleet, often traveling in convoys, will be monitored remotely through advanced camera technology similar to military drones. The latest technology has extended the autonomous vehicle industry’s Lidar remote sensing standard of 270 yards to nearly 1,100 yards. There are also a bevy of sensors that monitor thousands of data inputs each second to help navigate and control every function of the truck. The technology is also self-learning. The benefits are pretty obvious. Autonomous trucks can transport goods 24/7 with no mandatory 11-hour-per-day operating limits. They are fuel-efficient with little down time; there are no cell phone, passenger or other driver distractions; and the driverless trucks obey all traffic laws. Increased trucking safety and efficiency are clearly the goals.

See also: The Real Story on Transportation  

It’s no surprise that other big firms like Daimler (Mercedes), Waymo (Google), Volvo, Volkswagen, UPS and Tesla are all vigorously testing automated trucks. Keep in mind, the stakes are high. Trucks are the backbone of the U.S. economy, moving over 10 billion tons, 70% of all the country’s freight, and generating more than $700 billion in revenues in 2017. Trucking is the largest industry in 29 states, with Texas demonstrating steady revenue growth of 2.1% annually for the past five years. With no sign of trucking being slowed by technology, experts focus on the existing and future physical and mental demands of long-haul truckers. In turn, trucking operations using workers’ compensation insurance, or the Texas ERISA-based alternative injury benefit plan, expect that truck driver injuries or illnesses will decline.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), vehicle crashes are the leading cause of workplace deaths, with frequency of motor vehicle accidents on the rise over the past five years. In 2017, there were 2,077 workers’ compensation fatalities involving motor vehicles, accounting for 41% of all work-related deaths that year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says over 90% of such accidents are due at least in part to driver error. There’s no doubt that truck drivers are highly skilled, to drive their semi-trucks safely, but trucking firms report that nearly 70% of their highway big rig accidents are largely attributed to drivers’ unsafe actions. How will autonomous trucks deal with errant drivers?

Besides the long hours behind the wheel, other causes of injuries to drivers include the fact that semi-trucks are like mobile warehouses, with drivers performing a wide variety of duties in and around the tractor trailer and its cargo, often in adverse weather or road conditions. Drivers, particularly with an aging workforce, are understandably more susceptible to back, shoulder and knee claims. It’s a tough, demanding job. Lost-time injuries and the inability to assume meaningful transitional return-to-work duties are a challenge with trucking company fleet scheduling demands. Smaller trucking firms may have no other transitional duties available.

The nation’s 3.5 million commercial truck drivers in 2017 experienced 47,860 injuries or illnesses out of a total of 882,730 total occupational injuries. The National Safety Council states that motor vehicle claims are by far the most expensive workers’ compensation claim, on average at over $100,000 each. The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) says that, over a five-year period, these roadway claims accounted for 28% of claims above $500,000.

According to Commercial Truck Insurance HQ, a company that assists in obtaining various trucking related casualty insurance quotes, typical truck driver workers’ compensation insurance (NCCI category 7219) costs between 8% and 15% of a truck driver’s salary. With an average driver’s salary of $57,000 in 2019, this is an annual employer workers’ compensation premium of $4,580 to $8,550. With prior accidents or injuries, some trucking firms can experience annual per driver premium rates as high as $24,960 in Texas and $31,200 in California. Unlike for the majority of the country’s labor force, a reduction in frequency and severity of truck driver claims can translate into significant cost savings to the various employers that manage their truck hauling and delivery services.

Despite operating challenges like slick roadways, construction zones, severe weather, stalled vehicles or obstructions in the roadway, extreme precautionary measures are woven into the autonomous technology to ensure that safety is the top priority. Lane departure – often a beef with auto vehicles trying to pass trucks on the freeway – is better than ever. Trucks in caravans are expected, for the most part, to stay in the right lanes. Other enhancements include: forward collision mitigation; active breaking; and anti-rollover stability. Enhanced health and wellness is expected for drivers who are assigned to ride along in the cab and who will be able to use mobile devices at will or even eat or sleep in the cab as the autonomous unit travels.

What about vehicle liability? It’s assumed by legal and insurance analysts that the firms operating the driverless vehicles are most likely the deep pockets in the event of a serious accident or injury. Liability insurers are banking that trucking firms will have a lower frequency and severity of vehicle liability claims, as well. Overall, experts claim the savings to trucking firms using autonomous vehicles will ultimately be in the tens of billions of dollars. This helps both truckers and their employers as the new technology rolls out.

Assuming safety improves for both truck operators and other vehicles on the highway interacting with these trucks, the next big question has to do with truck driver jobs. The trucking industry currently has over 3.5 million Class 8 heavy-duty (GVWR of 33,001 pounds or more) truck drivers, but it has steadily lost its most experienced baby boomer drivers due to retirement or disability. While truckers were highly unionized until the 1970s, about 13% of the drivers are in unions, and over 10% of truck drivers, about 350,000, are solo operators who own their own trucks. The average age of truck drivers is 55, with 94% male, averaging only $45,000 per year in annual salary. Sadly, truck drivers also suffer a higher degree of chronic disease, including obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Adding to severe driver shortages is the fact that younger generations of employees are not interested in being in a sedentary, and often lonely, job. Long-haul truck drivers average 240 nights a year away from home, sleeping in the cab, motels or at truck stops and eating at diners or fast food restaurants. Over 100,000 truck driver positions are expected to be open in 2020 alone, with greater shortages predicted for the future. A bigger question will be the nature of work that new drivers will experience. What can a truck driver/operator expect as a job description in the future?

See also: Rapid Evolution of Autonomous Vehicles  

So how does all of this new technology affect workers? Are truck drivers going to be out of a job? Employers say that their intention is to have truck drivers in the cab to assist in loading and delivery, security, as well as logistics, route planning, and communications. So far, trucking companies state that their drivers for the foreseeable future will remain in the truck cab, much like an airline co-pilot, with the ability to take over the driving in the case of emergencies.

Automation and robotics have had a huge impact on our country’s workforce, but additional advancements are well on their way. It’s expected, for instance, that ride-sharing programs like Uber and Lyft will be displaced ultimately by autonomous vehicles operating 24/7. This technological leap in transportation should ultimately translate into massive productivity increases. But qualified drivers are needed in the interim to see us through this transition phase before autonomous vehicles, including trucks, are the norm. Our nation’s most important economic asset – employees – may struggle as employment opportunities shift direction, but autonomous driving technologies will change the employment landscape, creating efficiencies and enhancing workplace safety in ways we’ve never witnessed.

Musings on the Future of Driverless Vehicles

What might a future world look like where all transportation is via autonomous vehicles? Although we might be decades away from this vision, there are useful insights to be gained for today’s strategies in thinking through the possibilities. While I don’t personally own a crystal ball, this blog floats some ideas regarding what the future may hold.

In the meantime, SMA’s recent research report, Connected Vehicles and Insurance: Ten Strategic Considerations, provides some practical advice for insurance strategists today by identifying the potential value levers in the evolving connected vehicle area and exploring 10 strategic questions.

See also: Rapid Evolution of Autonomous Vehicles  

With that as background, here are 10 predictions for the future of transportation:

  1. Vehicle ownership by individuals will be so rare that people will need to visit theme parks for the “experience” of driving a car.
  2. People will be able to summon autonomous vehicles on demand for travel anywhere on the planet.
  3. Autonomous vehicles will be everywhere on land, on sea, in the air and underground – none will require drivers or operators. (For example, drone taxis will fill the skies.)
  4. Travel times will be significantly reduced as speed limits increase and high-speed transportation dominates. Very high-speed travel will be common via Hyperloop, supersonic aircraft or high-speed rail.
  5. The physical infrastructure for travel will be substantially different: no signs, no traffic controls and no fuel stations. The whole system of roadways will be transformed, with no need for median strips, lane markers, etc.
  6. All land-based vehicles will be powered by electricity and recharged directly from the road surface.
  7. The urban/suburban balance will change once again, with a concentration of individuals in mega-smart cities combined with new forms of living spaces and communities in rural/satellite areas. (Think about what could be done with all the garage space in residences when individuals do not own cars.)
  8. Vehicles of all types will be real-time, information-rich machines with augmented reality, virtual reality and instant access to information/entertainment content.
  9. Vehicular accidents will be virtually eliminated, but, when accidents do occur, they will be mega-accidents. (Imagine a software glitch or a freeway hack that causes pileups of hundreds of vehicles.)
  10. The variety of vehicles for transporting both people and goods will be astonishing, ranging from individual travel pods to gigantic vehicles transporting thousands of people at a time.

See also: Driverless Vehicles: Brace for Impact  

Also not to be forgotten is the complete reshaping of the industries that build vehicles, sell and service them and, of course, insure them. The journey to this future (or something like it) is highly uncertain in terms of timing and eventual outcomes; however, there is little debate that we are in the beginning of monumental transformation.

The Question That Insurtech Is Avoiding

There’s a lot of it about. Insurtech and technology, that is. New ways of doing stuff. Breaking traditional distribution models and deconstructing established supply chains. Who could not be excited?

But there’s another side to this coin, and that’s the issue of established practice. Insurance isn’t a new gig, like telematics, but something that’s been around for three centuries. Some might argue even longer, as there are records of even the ancient Egyptians sharing and aggregating risk. Protecting the few by collaborating with the many.

Over the centuries, insurance hasn’t been an easy ride. What do we mean by appropriate compensation, or, in insurance parlance, by the principle of indemnity? How to deal with those at fault, or, in insurance language, the matter of subrogation.

See also: Where Will Unicorn of Insurtech Appear?

But in the old way of doing things, we all knew where we stood. Insurance contracts had evolved over decades, and where there had been differences in interpretation the legal system had sorted things out for us. There was a sort of certainty and framework to our business and a more certain relationship, even if the topic of trust remains contentious — the level of trust between policyholders and carriers has always been low, despite a degree of contractual certainty.

Now, here we are in a Brave New World of insurance. Things will never be the same because of technology, the experts say. Some say insurtech is mainly just about new distribution channels, customer management and operational efficiency, but that leaves the rest of the insurance proposition.

It feels like we’re throwing a ball onto a sports field and asking the two competing teams to sort out the rules for themselves.

Will there be winners and losers? Of course. The winners will be the legal profession, which will spend years, perhaps, discussing where the liability for death rests as a result of a driverless vehicle incident. Was it the manufacturer – as a product liability issue? Was it the occupant of the vehicle – extending the concept of occupiers liability? Was it the system administrator, which ran the system and which surely must be involved somehow? Maybe even the victims themselves: “Don’t you know you need to be more careful, with all these unmanned gadgets all around us?’”

We can’t all just contract out of responsibility. The proverbial buck must rest somewhere.

Think forward a few decades. Let’s accept that the insurance industry will have been re-engineered and reimagined, with robots, chatbots and wobots. Let’s assume that physical risk is calculated in a more granular way and that underwriting risk management is absolutely aligned to the risk appetite of a carrier. And we have somehow managed to be proactive, to have better responsiveness to climatic change and everything else. And ubiquitous devices provide us with bottomless barrels of information, from which our systems draw insight through advanced analytics.

See also: 3-Step Approach to Big Data Analytics

Someone, somewhere, will need to address the question — what does all this mean contractually to the insurance industry? After, all isn’t insurance just no more than a contract, between two parties? Or was that concept somehow lost, somewhere inside the Innovation Hub, or among the bits and bytes of technology?

Isn’t it time that someone slowed the momentum of change and had a real hard think about the legal implications for insurance?

Autonomous Vehicles: ‘The Trolley Problem’

With the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles to the roads, many people have started worrying about the safety of this new technology, especially when an issue arises to do with choice.

In this piece, we’ll delve into the issue of the “Trolley Problem” and how AVs will deal with this and whether all manufacturers have the same stance.

‘Siri, What’s Your Opinion of AI?’

Astounding leaps forward have been made in two key technologies in the last couple years: voice recognition and artificial intelligence. Virtually everyone is becoming used to conversing with Siri, Alexa and others, backed by powerful voice recognition engines to convert speech to text. At the same time, AI is at the heart of breakthroughs in driverless vehicles, robotics, IoT devices and other emerging technologies. The promise of these technologies to make our world safer, improve our lives and address chronic societal problems is no longer the province of science fiction writers. But a dichotomy must be resolved: the gap between the current performance of voice and AI technologies and the levels required to achieve the benefits of driverless vehicles and other technologies.

Practically everyone can relate to frustrating incidents in using voice- and AI-based systems for rudimentary tasks. My personal experience with these systems often produces results that are comical, sometimes offensive, and many times just downright misleading. The Bluetooth in my car cannot even correctly interpret names when I want it to dial individuals with simple, single-syllable first and last names. And we have all seen crazy text conversations posted on Facebook.

See also: Don’t Be Distracted by Driverless Cars

On the AI front, the use of virtual assistants is becoming more common. My recent experience with one was a trigger for writing this blog. Communicating with a virtual assistant to address a technical email issue, I was sent into endless loops and misunderstandings, always to be followed with, “Did I answer your question?” My pleas to PLEASE LET ME TALK TO A LIVE HUMAN were answered with nonsense responses, or “Please rate your satisfaction with the answer.” You can guess my response. Similarly, if you have ever used a virtual assistant to try to schedule meetings, you have most likely come away completely flummoxed and ended up emailing or calling your colleague directly to schedule it. These types of interactions begin to give you a deeper appreciation for the nuances of human communication.

My point in describing the tech shortcomings is that we are headed into a future where we will rely extensively on them. The AI behind decisions that affect your life will not all occur when you are barreling down the highway at 65 mph. But much of our transportation, healthcare, entertainment and education and many aspects of our daily lives will rely on the recommendations and decisions made by AI-based systems. And we will control the world around us largely via voice commands.

Both voice and AI technologies are improving rapidly, but the question becomes – how can we be confident that the AI in a driverless vehicle will make the right life and death decisions in milliseconds when the relatively simple interactions we experience today are botched so badly?

Will the robot companion of my elderly father make a fatal mistake on medicine dosage? The accuracy and success of these technologies when used in the future for driverless vehicles, smart homes and the world at large is essential.

The implications for the insurance industry are significant. The progress of these technologies bears close monitoring so that the regulatory environment for, availability of and usage of new capabilities in the connected world do not actually make the world riskier and less safe.

See also: Who Is Leading in Driverless Cars?  

For now, we must live with (or suffer through) the current state of the tech. Just for fun, I asked Siri, “What’s your opinion of driverless vehicles?” My question was interpreted as “What’s your opinion of dry rose vehicles?” Need I say more?