How will insurance work with autonomous cars?

The insurance industry is gearing up for a driverless car revolution, as ALA Insurance explains | Promoted

By Sponsored / Thursday, November 4, 2021 / Loading comments

None of us need reminding that every year on UK roads there are over 1,700 fatalities and 180,000 further injuries. But it’s worth remembering that although over 90 per cent of these are caused by human error, even the most attentive driver only has seconds to react to an unexpected hazard.

So what happens when we remove the human element from the equation? Well, given the stats, this should bring road-related injury and death rates down. And so we look towards the driverless car.

As a reminder, the ‘level’ of autonomous driving provided by manufacturers is currently around 1 (minimal assistance from the vehicle e.g. cruise control) or 2 (the driver is ‘hands-on’ at all times, but the car has more control over lane keeping, speed etc). Level 3 will allow ‘hands-off’ driving in specific circumstances, 4 is obviously a bit more than that, and then 5 will be the full ‘lay back and have a nap’ experience on the road. Although that’s obviously a long way off for now.

To get serious, the biggest question facing manufacturers and ethicists alike is how the car should respond when faced with a potential collision. If human lives are at stake, should we programme driverless cars to actively minimise loss of life? And if so, what choices should the car make?

You’ll have no doubt heard of ‘The Trolley Problem’ – no, not as in avoiding a rogue supermarket trolley denting your bumper out of nowhere, but more like a tram or a train on railway tracks. If someone has the option to steer a runaway train down one track, where five people have been caught and tied up Road Runner style, or another track where there’s just one lowly victim, which should they choose? Does the bystander intervene and sacrifice one life to save five or take no action and allow five lives to be lost? Substitute the train for a driverless car, and the bystander for the in-built AI, and then we arrive at the thorny question of how exactly it should be programmed to decide who lives and who dies.

Less ethically troubling is the more basic question of what happens if your autonomous vehicle ploughs into a ditch thinking it was a side road – what’s the deal with insurance? Will you get a payout if your car causes the accident?

Traditionally, an insurance company covers the individual who owns or is driving the car. If there is no driver and therefore no personal liability, there should be fewer accidents – but there could be a much higher cost per claim. As we’ve seen with electric vehicles, compared with traditional cars they tend to cost more to buy initially and can be pricey to repair, with these costs then passed on to insurers following a collision or theft. For driverless cars, this will likely be even higher.

In theory, personal lines insurance would eventually become obsolete; a switch to product liability would put the manufacturer in the firing line if anything goes wrong, especially if there were clear cut failures in tech. However, product liability claims are complicated and can take a long time to resolve, so could leave victims without compensation when they need it.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 clarified the law around insurance for driverless cars. Essentially, where an insured driverless car is involved in an accident, victims can claim through the motor insurer, and the motor insurer will then have recourse against the manufacturer. If the car is not insured, the driver will have to cover the costs.

When asked whether electric and autonomous cars would drive up costs to insurers and motorists, Talat Ahmed, sales director at AMS Insurance Services, confirmed that things could be changing: “We are not currently seeing huge increases in claims on EVs, however, this is due to low volumes.” He went on to say that this is almost certain to change in the coming years given the UK Government’s commitment to cease the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2035.

Simon England, founder and managing director of ALA Insurance agrees that this would undoubtedly extend to automated vehicles: “New vehicle technology always comes at a cost; manufacturing EVs will undoubtedly cost more and until we’re at full automation, buying, repairing and insuring high-tech cars will have a financial impact on car owners and insurers”.

“We provide GAP insurance for EVs and have seen an increase in hybrids and EVs being covered over the last 6 months,” said England. “Our customer support team have heard nothing put positivity when it comes to EVs, and excitement from customers about their new eco-friendly vehicle. The hunger from the public is there, now the insurance industry just needs to make sure the quality of products continues to keep up with the changing technology.”

So while we’re still a long way off from the reality of your own car taking you home after a night out, there’s more to think about than just which bar you are going to first. One thing is for certain: all human technology has malfunctioned at some point. Large scale disasters could take insurers and car manufacturers to drawn-out litigation and potentially even bankruptcy. We’re only just beginning to get to grips with the ramifications of driverless car technology, and what it might mean for the future of motoring if – when – things go wrong.


If you’ve bought a car on PistonHeads within the last month – with AutoPilot or not – you can activate your free 30-day GAP policy from ALA Insurance here.

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