Insurance Challenges to Partial Autonomous Vehicle Safety

A clamp down is underway in the United States. This may be partly due to the accidents that have occurred over recent years involving Tesla vehicles that were driving on Autopilot.

Some drivers have mistakenly paid the price by thinking that Autopilot means that their vehicles are fully autonomous. In fact, the system is meant to offer more ‘driver assist’ than complete vehicle autonomy, despite the blatantly misleading way it has been marketed.

For example, a driver of a 2021 Tesla Model S told authorities in the US in November 2022 that he was in “full self-driving mode” when he caused an eight-vehicle crash on the San Francisco Bay Bridge in California on Thanksgiving Day. It is said the car’s technology malfunctioned, resulting in a couple of juveniles being transported to hospital and lengthy delays on the bridge itself.

The police reports says the vehicle was driving at 55 mph at the time and that is suddenly changed lane and braked abruptly to the point that it slowed the car down to 20 mph. This led to another vehicle hitting the driver’s Tesla, and then to the chain reaction of crashes. However, despite that claims that this was caused by a software malfunction, police were unable to determine whether or not the software was actually in operation.

Nevertheless, because of this is incident and other accidents, Tesla’s Autopilot is facing more and more legal, regulatory and public scrutiny. This includes from the insurance industry which wants to clamp down on vehicles that have partial autonomous driving capabilities to prevent and reduce accidents.

Connected benefits

That said cars fitted with similar technology such as the Seat Leon can steer itself (while still requiring the driver to hold the steering wheel and be alert). It can also automatically slow down when the vehicle approaches a speed camera when it is in cruise control. In cruise control the car can maintain its distance from other vehicles, too. All of this this can increase safety when they are used appropriately within the limits of the technology [Only up to a point see Tested: Audi SQ5 Review – Highs and Lows of Today’s Technology – Ed]. So, any clamp down should perhaps be more educational than absolute to ensure the proper use of the systems.

Avoiding over-reliance

The key to safety is to ensure that nobody relies wholeheartedly on autonomous driving systems – whether partial of fully automated. To increase driver awareness of the capabilities of their vehicles, the automotive industry in the US is creating a rating system to alert drivers. These ratings were to be set in 2022 to levels of good, acceptable, marginal or poor.

The aim is to ensure that a driver maintains concentration on the road ahead with their hands on the steering wheel, or at the ready to grab hold of it to take control of the vehicle. If the driver isn’t meeting these conditions, then the vehicle is required to provide escalating alerts and emergency procedures to protect the driver and others.

IIHS ratings program

A spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) clarifies what it’s all about: “The IIHS vehicle ratings program on safeguards for partial driving automation does not use a star rating. The IIHS ratings program is not affiliated with any government agency or ratings program, such as the NCAP, and The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not currently have a similar ratings program for partial driving automation.”

Insufficient reliable information

Alexandra Mueller, the Institute’s research scientist who’s overseeing the development of the new program comments that there is insufficient reliable information about how many crashes involve vehicle with partial autonomous driving capabilities in the US. Nevertheless, the NHTSA currently has a Standing General Order reporting mechanism. It relies on voluntarily submitted information from the automakers, and Police reported crashes are also limited.

He explains: “For example, Police reports often do not contain information about whether partial driving automation was equipped on the vehicles involved in the crash and responding officers often do not have the ability to determine whether the technology was being used at the time of the crash. Right now, the available crash and insurance data show mixed results as to whether partial driving automation has any safety benefits. Most of these systems are designed to operate on highways and limited access roads, which already have the lowest crash rates as compared with any other driving environment.”

Autonomous misuse

The IIHS finds from data from natural observation research that people are prone to misusing the partial autonomous driving technology. Sometimes they intentionally do it and, on other occasions, it’s unintentional. The misuse, he says, depends on how the systems are designed. Complexity is added by the wide range of system implementations on the market today. So, the IIHS feels there is now a unique opportunity to ensure automakers design these systems with driver safety in mind. “Hence the creation of the IIHS’s new program,” he adds.

As for the impact on insurance premiums, the IIHS says it doesn’t study the business side of insurance and so it can’t tell whether they will be affected. Mueller says it’s also too early to quantify the effectiveness of the IIHS’s new program at this moment in time. However, he says it has “consistently seen that automakers pay close attention when we launch a new ratings program, and they typically respond quickly with design changes”. Mueller says this has been particularly true with regard to crash tests and crash avoid test programs and so he expects to see similar results with the new ratings.

Industry support

Robin Hayles, product PR manager at Hyundai Motor UK, talks about the UK market and says Hyundai’s vehicles are assessed under the NCAP ratings system which is different from the US industry “good, acceptable, marginal or poor” rankings. A spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers concludes that the insurance industry “fully supports the development of autonomous vehicle technologies that have the potential to significantly improve road safety”.

The ABI believes there is a need for further work to be done to establish and communicate clear legal definitions around the limits of a vehicles self-driving capabilities. These would help users to understand their obligations whenever they are being used. This requires any clamp down to be about driver education more than anything else. Yet if ratings work by raising awareness, then there will inevitably be either a positive or negative impact on insurance premiums.

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