AVs Must Protect Their Passengers Last

Traditionally insurance policies focus on the vehicle and its users.

Even with fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) they will concentrate on the vehicles. However, liability may rest more with the automotive manufacturers than with an autonomous car, van or trucks users. What’s missing, says Tony Fish, chief executive of Digital20 and an artificial intelligence expert, is how policymakers, carmakers and insurers cover people outside of them in an accident, such as pedestrians and other road users.

He says there needs to be polarity in the thinking and that it’s not about a chicken-and-egg situation: “We can move away from the safety and protection of the driver, to super lightweight, highly energy-efficient vehicles that protect the public.  Stop designing and building infrastructure to mimic what we have accepted, which was a poor idea at the start.”

Talking about when the law will change to protect people outside of the vehicles, he says he’s not convinced that there will be any radical change. In his view this is because there is a need to go through a step-process. He explains: “At the moment we insure the person who’s driving the car and the insurance is for that person inside the car. What we want to reach is for the protection of the person outside the [autonomous] car. We should insure both. Do we first insure that car, or the person driving the car, which is closer to New Zealand’s model.”

“In NZ, the car is insured, so anyone can drive that car, or any car that’s insured because the car has the insurance and not the individual. I suspect that the law won’t change overnight, but the law needs to think about what the journey needs to look like. I think there is no motivation to do it and so the question is why? There doesn’t seem to be timetable, a framework to have it in place in, say, ten years so that insurers can follow the timeline.”

Different models

He rightly comments that every country has its own view out how insurance should work. However, he argues that this is a tad confusing, perhaps exacerbated in the UK by insurance premiums often being paid up front for a year. There is, nevertheless, a market for premium finance and some insurance policies can be paid over the course of the year on credit. Despite this he asks whether the upfront payment model is the right one “in light of time of use-based insurance”. Fish adds that the law doesn’t seem to want to have that conversation, partly because they have built a model based on risk and premium’s being paid up front.

However, Siddartha Khastgir, head of verification and validation, intelligent vehicles at WMG at University of Warwick, points out that in 2018 the UK’s government brought into force the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act (AEVA) 2018. He comments: “The AEVA 2018 takes into consideration people outside the car and insures them in case they suffer damage owing to an automated vehicle being driven in automated mode. This is an important aspect of the Act, which enables automated vehicles to be deployed on UK roads.”

With regards to the safety and insurance cover of people outside of, for example, autonomous vehicles, Khastgir thinks there is a need for a systems approach in order to succeed. That may involve technology development, regulation, business models or insurance. “Therefore, the law not only needs to consider the safety of the people inside the AV but also the safety of the actors (pedestrians, cyclists, other vehicles etc.) around the AV,” he says.

“However, some autonomous may be designed to operate in areas where other actors are not allowed. In such a situation, it may be acceptable to consider the safety of those inside the vehicle only. Having said that, the AV will need to be able to implement a mechanism to continuously detect if other actors are present or not and safely cease operation in case of the presence of another actor in the surroundings.”

Setting standards

In response Fish comments that it’s not just about mandating law. To him it’s about setting standards to protect people. He claims that when we set standards to protect the person within the vehicle, lots of wasted energy is created in terms of designing something that’s not required, including wasted raw materials. This means, for example, a car may reach the end of its life without having been involved in a crash. “The level of waste we’ve created is pretty bloody mad and this has created a race to become bigger not smaller,” he suggests.

From an ethics perspective, Khastgir believes that both the person or persons inside the vehicle and those outside of it warrant cover: “For autonomous vehicle technology to succeed, it needs to be both. It is imperative that the safety of both in-vehicle occupants and actors outside the vehicles is considered in all technical development, regulatory and liability discussions.”

“An AV will interact with its operating environment. Therefore, one cannot design a safe AV without considering the interactions of the AV with its surroundings, for example with pedestrians, cyclists, infrastructure etc.” Subsequently vehicle manufacturers’ safety assurance processes for AVs will need to consider a variety of test scenarios to see how the autonomous vehicle handles oncoming pedestrians, cyclists, other vehicles. He says, as ‘actors’, they have to be part of the operational design domain (operating conditions) of the AV.

Economics of value

Fish nevertheless enquires: “Where are we having the discussion: whose life do we value more?” He believes the conundrum of whether the person in the vehicle if more of value, or the person outside the vehicle is more of value, falls down to the economics of value. “It’s the same question that COVID-19 has raised”, he suggests before adding:

“Both have an economic value impact on society, so why have we made a distinction between those two values. The insurance companies set a value on life, whether you die or kill someone while driving. That person who’s been hit then becomes a cost to society. So, why don’t we make cars safer for the people we hit? That’s the observation.”

Changing behavior

He wonders what would have happened if seatbelts hadn’t been made mandatory.  Would people have changed their behavior? He also considers whether lives would have been significantly saved and whether there would be fewer deaths if we had to drive slower than we do. “We have to deal with the infallibility of the system we want, versus the fallibility of the human,” he remarks.

He concludes that people are far too accepting of what they already have: “We are poor at looking back and asking whether we’d done anything different, would we have had a better outcome. People don’t want to lose their agency; they don’t want to give up driving their cars, even if there would be a better outcome. It’s a discussion that becomes very political, and individuals put themselves ahead of society.”

He also argues that there needs to be more polarity between genders, arguing that even seatbelts were designed with the average man in mind, making women an afterthought. So, from an insurance perspective, and to protect everyone, policies do more than cover the individuals with a traditional or an autonomous vehicle. To gain polarity, it’s ethically right for those outside it to also be covered.

However, this may lead to what he calls Peak Paradox, which he explains “sets off individuals against society and survival against work.” From an automotive perspective, he says driving [the ability to have agency], is put against a society that wants to have safer transport. He calls for a compromise and polarity can’t be gained without one. At the moment he declares there isn’t one but it’s the outcome that everyone should want. At the moment, we’re not heading in that direction.


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