Every year, car manufacturers parade an array of new gadgets and concepts which promise to ‘revolutionise motoring’. While some are doomed to remain ideas, it’s pretty clear that driverless cars – once in the realms of sci-fi – are truly transforming the automotive industry. These cars and the technologies that support them, such as autonomous braking and lane departure assist, are the most disruptive change to driver safety since the seat belt. With Tesla recently releasing a video of their full autonomous Model X electric car and announcing that all the cars they build from now on will include self-driving components, we look at where these changes leave drivers and insurers.

Decisions, decisions

Google’s driverless cars have already clocked over 300 years of human driving experience and are continuing to develop. Unlike many drivers who perfect their skills ahead of their test, then develop bad habits when left to their own devices, these cars are always in beta – constantly improving and adapting to their surroundings.
This does wonders for minimising driver error, but leaves life-and-death decisions in the hands of a computer. To try and solve this challenge, MIT is running a morality machine experiment, which asks users to prioritise who to save – passengers, pedestrians or quadrupeds – in different collision scenarios. Although even at the research stage, it’s clear that this is a complex issue that truly autonomous vehicles and their programmers will face, and there are no easy answers.

Blame game

The regulatory landscape for driverless cars is a potential minefield, not just due to the complexity of emerging technologies but also the number of stakeholders involved. Many manufacturers have had a fairly muted response to the regulation of this technology. Tesla, known for being a trendsetter in this area has been under scrutiny following incidents involving their autopilot feature in China and the US. Volvo, on the other hand, is one of the first manufacturers to accept full liability for any accidents involving their driverless vehicles.
Insurers are following these developments carefully. Although the technology does have the potential to decrease the number of collisions, thus reducing motor insurance premiums in the long run, the additional cost of repair and maintenance of new technologies may be a challenge in the short term. With manufacturers and the tech industry being the driving force of this movement, many insurers are only starting to learn of these needs, so underwriters and the packages they produce must work to catch up.

The effect on drivers

Research from Autoglass® (our client) has found that many drivers are blissfully unaware of the technology in their cars, and even more consumers are unaware of how to fix these features when they break. 68% of UK drivers are failing to follow the advice of vehicle manufacturers, and aren’t calibrating the sensors used in these semi-autonomous vehicles after a windscreen replacement. This raises concerns about safety which needs to be addressed across the wider industry. In addition, these new technologies are not yet tested in the MOT, so can easily be overlooked, despite them being potential life-savers.
There’s no doubt that politicians, insurers and consumers alike are all starting to take notice of the changes driverless cars will make to our roads. With the US government publishing self-driving guidelines, and aftermarket bodies such as Autoglass® and Thatcham all working together to create an industry standard for the repair of these sensors, it will be interesting to see how all stakeholders work together to navigate the road ahead.
By Delia Williams-Falokun