Autonomous vehicles

Autonomous vehicles: How close are we?

There are many names for the latest revolution in the automotive world: self-driving car, robot car, autonomous vehicle (AV), driverless car. What was once a futuristic fantasy is rapidly becoming a full-fledged reality. Since 2014, auto manufacturers and technology firms have invested $80 billion in developing autonomous technology, according to the Brookings Institute.

What makes the AV so appealing? For insurance companies, it is the promise of safer streets. Driver error contributes to 95 percent of car crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Yet transitioning drivers to a safe driverless future is more complicated than just taking their hands off the wheel. First, they need to be convinced AVs are safe and cost-effective.

Drivers skeptical about AV

A survey conducted in October 2018 by J.D. Power and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC) found that while Americans might be fascinated by the idea of a self-driving car, most say it will take several years before they feel comfortable riding in one — if ever.

“The public will simply not tolerate very many crashes at the hand of a robot,” said Dan McGehee, director of National Advanced Driving Simulator laboratories (NADS).

NADS, a University of Iowa research center in Coralville, Iowa, is one of the largest and most advanced ground vehicle driving simulators in the world.

“I think when we hear of people causing a crash, we can have some sympathy for them, but we don’t have sympathy for machines that hurt us.”

Despite the public’s wariness, AV researchers and manufacturers are not putting on the brakes for testing.

But a mass changeover could take a couple of decades. “It takes about 20 years to ‘cleanse the fleet,’” McGehee said, “largely because people buy more used vehicles than new ones, and it takes that long for 90 percent of car owners to have vehicles with updated technology.”

What is much closer on the horizon, having started in research labs like NADS over 20 years ago, are advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). Examples of ADAS used today include adaptive cruise control, lane centering, and forward collision warning.

Many of these features will soon be mandatory in new vehicles. For example, auto emergency braking (AEB) systems will be standard equipment on all vehicles by 2022. In the model 2019 year, nearly 100 percent of Subarus and Toyotas have technologies like lane keeping, stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, and automatic emergency braking.

These technologies can be critical, according to McGehee. “As we move forward, we will understand more fully the effect of significantly reducing driver error,” he said.

A changing insurance landscape

Mass use of AVs seems inevitable, and IHS Automotive predicts that there will be 4.5 million AVs on the road by 2030. What effects will that have on the property-casualty insurance market?

“For insurers, the focus will continue to be providing products and services for our customers,” said Matthew Schulte, director of Strategic Insights at Grinnell Mutual.

The next 10 years, he says, will be an exciting time as more ADAS technologies appear in vehicles and AVs start to come into the market.

“The nature of this technology — and any technology — is that somebody has to go first. Somebody has to take the risk and trust in the technology.”

Schulte says insurance companies — including Grinnell Mutual — are watching this trend carefully to see how it will impact books of business and customers. How it will play out has yet to be seen.

But in a June 2018 article, Property Casualty 360 says one of the greatest challenges will be in assigning liability after a crash or fatality and answering lots of questions, like: What role did the driver play? What role did the AV play? Was a third party involved and if so, what was their role? What degree of automation was in the car?

Buying in

Getting the public on board with new technologies is largely a matter of experiencing them firsthand.

“We’ve surveyed people on ADAS technologies, and then we put them in a car that has automatic braking and other assistance features,” said McGehee. “It’s a different kind of experience, but they really like it. They switch almost instantly.”

McGehee encourages people to go out and experience vehicles with ADAS themselves.

“I think once the public starts getting used to these systems, their minds are going to be changed quickly.”

And from there, it’s only one step further to mass adoption of self-driving technology. While large-scale use of AVs may not be part of the immediate future and insuring them may not be the work of today, planning for that future is.


Photo courtesy of University of Iowa.