By Michael Hill
While engineers are testing and tweaking Teslas and other automakers’ self-driving and fully driverless vehicles, the conversation over insurance is revving up.
There’s a growing consensus that autonomous cars will drive down roadway fatalities, that robots will drive more safely than humans. That leads to predictions of lower costs for drivers.
“The liability and medical costs side of it you expect to go down if there’s less people being killed or injured,” said National Motorists Association New Jersey Chapter Coordinator Steve Carrellas.
The nonprofit Consumer Watchdog is wary of the autonomous vehicles collecting tons of information that could be used against drivers in setting insurance rates.
“Insurance companies see this as a bug business opportunity for them to get more and more data, and perhaps use that data for other lines of insurance to tell them about how responsible we are in keeping up our homes,” said Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court.
Some automakers are designing driverless cars with no steering wheels, eliminating any human control. They say they’d take full responsibility if their technology fails and causes a crash.
Other automakers are engineering cars that would require humans to take control from the autopilot under certain conditions.
In either case, some consumers are slamming the brakes on the conversation, asking if the car is driving itself all the time or most of the time then why should I have to get insurance or have as much coverage as I do now?
“Well this is essentially the same issue we’re looking at with driver distractions,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
Wisniewski chairs the Assembly’s Transportation Committee. He says when control must shift from robot to human, situational awareness applies and could lead to accidents and therefore requires insurance to cover the damage.
“Those standards should continue to apply,” Wisniewski said.
“What you pay for auto insurance is largely based on you. How the vehicle performs will be more of an issue,” said Property Casualty Insurers Association of America Assistant Vice President Bob Passmore.
The bottom line: A bigger share of liability could shift from car owners to vehicles and their makers, thanks to advances in technology allowing the vehicles to collect a ton of information about how the vehicles perform.
“I think it’s pretty clear that this kind of technology really has the possibility to reduce the number of accidents, but the accident that we do have will be a little bit more complicated to take care of or to determine who is at fault,” Passmore said.
“It’s basically like turning on cruise control. If you turn on cruise control today you still have control of that vehicle because at some point something’s going to happen where you’re going to have to take control back. All of those autonomous functions are currently in the market do not supplant a driver,” said AAA Northeast Director of Public Affairs Cathleen Lewis.
The National Motorists Association envisions drivers still needing comprehensive coverage for injuries and repairs, and self-driving cars requiring maker and owner sharing joint liability.
“We would hopefully see over time insurance rates go down because if it’s less loss, less payout by the insurance companies, they can’t charge as much to cover their costs and whatever profit they want to make,” Carrellas said.
Advocates say safer vehicles should equal fewer fatalities and more savings.