The autonomous car: who is ready to take the risk?

The Geneva Motor Show has just closed its doors and in its wake has cast doubt on the quick launch of autonomous cars. The technology is, for the most part, ready to go – but recent accidents have shown that the question of risk remains.

 

During the Geneva Motor Show, manufacturers confirmed their desire to offer autonomous vehicles yet they failed to announce any real developments. The market launch of level 5 (fully automated) vehicles is expected to take place in 2 to 3 years’ time. However, the progress that has reportedly been made with the GOOGLE car and TESLA and UBER autonomous vehicles would lead us to believe that the launch was only a matter of months away. It would seem that the recent events in the United States during the testing phase have weighed heavy on the deployment of this new technology. Has the risk-taking capacity of Americans been adequately measured?

 

The American legislative framework: a race for the relaxation of rules

In recent years, many US states have entered the race to relax rules on the movement of autonomous cars with a view to attracting industry giants to their respective territories. For example, Arizona and Florida have not imposed a requirement for test vehicles to be remotely controllable in the event of a problem. As for California, on 26 February the state adopted an unprecedented regulation authorising autonomous vehicles to travel on its roads without a driver though they must be able to be operated remotely.

It was only after this that the two fatal accidents occurred, one where an UBER vehicle collided with a pedestrian in Arizona and a second where a passive driver of a TESLA X died in California whilst the autopilot was turned on. UBER has suspended its testing programme, with NVIDIA also following suit. Only GOOGLE seems to be continuing with its testing programme.

Although a comprehensive report on these two incidents is yet to be released, many questions have been raised on the reliability of the technology (notably the LIDAR lasers on-board the UBER autonomous vehicle), as well as the responsibility of the manufacturers and “passive” drivers.

 

Insurers are putting measures in place to better manage potential accidents

It would, of course, be unrealistic to think that an autonomous vehicle is a zero-risk concept. The insurance world is fully aware of the key issues and is offering tailored solutions to accommodate these.  In France, insurers have already fixed rates based on the characteristics of the vehicle (including its safety equipment), insurance claim statistics and the vehicle’s power rating. Despite the strategies announced by some of them, the clear consideration of semi-autonomous functions (2 and especially 3) is still in its infancy.

In England, a “two-in-one” insurance policy covers both the driver, when he is behind the wheel, and the vehicle, when it is in autonomous mode:

In the event of an accident involving a car in autonomous mode, the insurance company will be responsible for compensating the victims before approaching the car manufacturer for reimbursement. Some people even think that the car insurance of tomorrow will only involve suppliers, and not individuals. Another strategy is for insurers to support certain programmes where the autonomous vehicles only travel in clearly defined conditions, such as MATMUT who is collaborating with the Normandy Autonomous Lab and XL Catlin who has just announced a partnership with the start-up Oxbotica to support Gatwick Airport’s autonomous vehicle project.

Therefore, the challenges associated with autonomous vehicles cannot be easily overcome, from a technical, regulatory and insurance point of view. The technological evolution suggests that we will we witness a profound change in traffic movement in the decades to come.

 

Alexis NARDONE, International Specialties Director

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