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Driverless Cars: Stuck in First Gear?

At a glance

  • Over 90% of deaths and injuries on our roads today involve human error, so it’s easy to see why experts believe autonomous vehicles could pave the way to a collision-free world
  • With motorists no longer having to pay attention to the road and giving complete control over to the vehicle, autonomous cars look set to dramatically improve road safety
  • But, compared to predictions that driverless cars would be a fixture by 2020, why hasn’t Artificial Intelligence changed the world yet?

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By reading this article, and correctly answering the three questions underneath, you will have achieved the following learning outcome: Recognise the latest trends in autonomous vehicle development and explain the impact on motor insurance.

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According to Thatcham, over 90% of deaths and injuries on our roads today involve human error, so it’s easy to see why experts believe autonomous vehicles could pave the way to a collision-free world. After all, driverless cars don’t get distracted by the radio or by someone sending a text, behave aggressively or get tired. With motorists no longer having to pay attention to the road and giving complete control over to the vehicle, autonomous cars look set to dramatically improve road safety.

While today’s cars are fitted with various amounts of autonomous technology on them, such as equipment that activates the brakes if a pedestrian is detected – it’s still a far cry from the 1970s’ predictions that by 2020 we should have completely driverless models altogether.

Why hasn’t Artificial Intelligence changed the world yet?

Widely reported in 2015 that we’d all be enjoying the benefits of a ‘DeLorean’ time machine style futuristic bot vehicle in 2020, the idea now seems as far away as ever. Whereas Thatcham says we won’t see the first fully driverless cars until 2025 and that it will take another 15 years before automated cars become the norm. On the flipside, today’s wagon is poles apart from where the car was ten years ago – with many new vehicles fitted with cameras and sensors to monitor risks and automatically apply the brakes in the event of a prospective smash or the car will even drive itself back into lane if the driver loses control.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) in vehicles has been gaining traction in recent years, as artificial neutral networks have become more sophisticated. Such systems ‘learn’ to carry out tasks by considering examples, usually without being programmed with task-specific rules. Examples of vehicle AI progress includes, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), including cruise control and automated parking. Another example is the Apple patent granted in 2016 for a unique collision avoidance system, detecting and moving around real life 3D objects to find a route. While last year, Ford indicated they were developing ‘Tubular Door Airbags’ – a patented idea whereby sensors would trigger an inflatable airbag, mounted in bars or the cage of the Ford Bronco where a door was previously, to help tackle the impact of a crash on its passengers.

Driverless cars and the issue of liability

Notably, Volvo pledged in 2018 to there being no accidents involving one of their cars by 2020 – but now we’ve reached the year, the company is unlikely to be able to fulfil the claim. Over the pond, driverless vehicles from Tesla, Volkswagen and Uber are currently being developed and tested on American roads. However in the UK, attention still remains around the challenge to the traditional liability route for losses arising out of unsafe cars under current liability laws. Under UK law, the driver is required to be insured, so if using an automated mode of transport, cracks begin to form in the existing insurance framework – making it difficult for policyholders to make a claim. With the emergence of driverless cars, will human error be completely ruled out in the event of a crash? Will liability shift to the manufacturer?

Insurance companies are intended to be primarily liable for accidents caused by automated vehicles under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill (AEV). Under the act, when a technology failure causes an incident, insurers will have the right to recover costs, preventing motorists from being unfairly punished for a road traffic accident that they couldn’t have prevented.

The ABI proposes the following key points:

  • Motorists should only need one insurance policy and can use the automated mode whenever road regulations permit, without having to alter their level of protection
  • If another driver, cyclist or pedestrian needs to make a claim, they can go direct to the insurer and won’t need to worry if there is a dispute over whether the vehicle technology was responsible for an accident
  • If a driverless car does fail to cope with the road situation, motorists will not be held accountable for an accident – the insurer should recover any costs involved in settling the claim from the manufacturer
  • Anyone injured while using a car in automated mode will also be able to claim appropriate compensation for their own injuries

We can continue to expect to see questions of liability being raised by the Insurance industry, with a number of stakeholders and those parties responsible for components of the automation, with the potential for liability shifting.

At Zurich we’re supportive of the move to autonomous cars, as it will reduce the number of people killed or injured due to major road incidents. There is also an opportunity for the industry to work collaboratively in partnership and to share data on driverless tech to enable the understanding of crash-prevention and ultimately this will help to save lives by creating safer roads.

Image © Getty

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