Mastermind host poses tough questions at insurance seminar

BBC broadcaster John Humphrys joined a host of industry leaders trying to mastermind an insurance solution for autonomous vehicles.

Perhaps the nub of the entire driverless debate came in a brief exchange midway through the seminar, A future with autonomous driving cars, when John was talking to James Dalton, director, General Insurance Policy, Association of British Insurers (ABI).

‘Who is liable?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know,’ James answered.

James went on to say he expects liability issues to be settled in American courts. But ‘I don’t know’ is the current answer to plenty of questions surrounding the implications of autonomous vehicles. A future with autonomous driving cars, attended by bodyshop magazine, more than 200 industry representatives, and featuring keynote speeches from the ABI, Volvo and Thatcham Research, was the latest attempt to get ahead of the curve.

Chief executive of Thatcham Research Peter Shaw introduced the seminar by predicting a change to EU driving legislation within five years to facilitate driverless technology, which experts claim could reduce crashes by 80% and premiums by 30%.

He said, ‘Autonomous cars will make driving much safer, some experts say up to 80% safer. One thing is for sure, this is the biggest revolution in vehicle safety. Ever.’

Seminar moderator and broadcast journalist John Humphreys agreed: ‘It’s hard to think of anything in the field of transport that is as important as this. There is nothing. Absolutely nothing.’

But while those 80% and 30% figures might bring a tear to the eye of insurers, James Dalton, director, General Insurance Policy, ABI, remained sanguine. He highlighted the potential benefits regarding safety, congestion and mobility for disabled drivers, but added that there is still plenty of murky water to wade through before fully autonomous vehicles become a reality.

‘The term driverless cars is misleading and dangerous, and ensuring consumers understand its limitations is crucial. For the foreseeable future autonomous vehicles will still need a competent and sober driver…the current insurance model is suitable for the medium term, at least.’

He pointed to obvious roadblocks surrounding liability, such as who is responsible if software is upgraded after a policy has been taken out, and who decides what constitutes ‘safe and responsible’ autonomous driving?

‘Manufacturers seem more keen on brand self-promotion, but legislation isn’t brand specific,’ he added. ‘My instinct is these answers will be determined by the courts.

‘But let’s not forget a large number of people still want to drive, and think a human should always be in control. I don’t think driverless cars will exist for a very long time.’

An informal survey of attendees suggested otherwise, with more than 90% indicating they expected to drive a fully autonomous vehicle within a decade.

However, if there is an issue with liability, Volvo made its position clear with Håkan Samuelsson, president and chief executive officer, issuing an unequivocal statement that sounded like a challenge to other manufacturers.

‘We don’t think it’s a bold statement to say that if there is a problem when the car is in automatic mode then it’s a case of product liability. If you can’t say that, then you have no product. Who wants to buy an autopilot that you have to supervise? Having a clear statement like this isn’t PR, I think it’s constructive to the industry.’

Volvo is making dramatic progress in its development of driverless cars, with tests underway in Sweden and plans to bring 100 fully autonomous cars to London by 2018. It has also urged industry regulators to catch up with technology, saying targets of 2018 and 2021 for partial and complete ‘hands-off’ driving is restricting.

Erik Coelingh, senior technical leader, safety and driver support technologies, said, ‘That’s too slow. It limits us. We’d like to test fully autonomous vehicles on public roads as soon as possible.’

Håkan concluded by warning against a rush to be the first to introduce appropriate policy. He said, ‘Autonomous driving will change our whole industry. Safety is the starting point and it will help us fulfil our statement of zero drivers killed in cars by 2020. But it’s also about quality of life, reducing congestion and using our time more productively.

‘This will be a gradual evolution, but we need an international solution not a patchwork of local legislation.’