Self-driving car crashes raise questions on future of auto product

By | January 14, 2016



Author: Caitlin Bronson  | Jan 14, 2016  |

Self-driving cars have been hailed as the future of transportation – one that would involve the revolution and perhaps the death of the auto insurance product – but continued technical problems may cause some to reconsider.

This week, Google shared that drivers have had to intervene to stop the company’s autonomous vehicles from crashing on California roads 13 times between September 2014 and November 2015. Two of these cases would have involved hitting a traffic cone, while the other 11 “would have been more serious,” Google said.

The report comes on the heels of similar data from other car tech companies involving other safety incidents. Nissan drivers had to intervene 106 times in 1,485 miles of test, while Volkswagen drivers intervened 260 times in 14,945 miles and Mercedes-Benz drivers intervened to prevent crashes a whopping 1,051 times in 1,739 miles.

Consumer advocates say the crashes undermine Google’s and other company’s eventual plans to build cars without manual controls.  They may also undermine previous claims about insurance for driverless cars – predictions that include the total “eviscerat[ion] of auto insurance,” according to investment firm Keefe Bruyette & Woods.

Leaving aside the fact that these cars may never come to be embraced by the public – a position many insurance agents still maintain – forecasts from KPMG reveal that average accident expense could increase from almost US$14,000 currently to roughly US$35,000 as the technology embedded in the cars becomes more expensive and more temperamental.

Unsurprisingly, insurers and brokers are questioning whether manufacturers can deal with not only the intense complexity of liability issues involved with driverless cars, but the costs associated with accidents. That leaves room for insurance professionals in the auto sector, though perhaps in a slightly different way.

“Owners of these cars may be taking on responsibility for a piece of technology when they purchase these vehicles,” said John Tiene, who represents thousands of independents as CEO of Agency Network Exchange in New Jersey. “You may not be buying a liability policy anymore, but you may need a cyber policy or an operator policy or any number of new insurance products.”

Whether insurers will want to take on that risk with such a high accident rate continuing, however, remains to be seen.