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Some thoughts on driverless cars

Mercedes F 015

The Mercedes F 015 concept car

As the founder of a company that sits at the forefront of tech innovation in motoring, I'm asked my opinion on autonomous cars quite often.

And embarrassingly, until very recently, I didn't really have one. I'm so concerned with how people are driving every day that I hadn't given a lot of thought to what will happen when they don't need to drive at all.

It's a scary thought, isn't it? Tonnes of metal hurtling down the motorway, the driver casually reading a book... But it's a reality that's not too far away - 20 years or so according to car manufacturers.

The draws and drawbacks of going driverless

Many consumers say they don't welcome the coming of driverless cars, and it's mainly because they just like driving.

There's also the obvious safety concerns - personally, it would take serious conviction in the technology for me to trust that a car could be smart enough to deal with unpredictable situations. How will driverless cars interact with pedestrians and cyclists? That remains to be seen.

Then there's legality. Tests with autonomous vehicles are largely being conducted in California, an infamously litigious state, but Germany is close in the running and apparently making the most progress in adapting legally.

If the forecast spread does happen, who's to blame when things go wrong? Not the driver - they surrendered control to the car. Not the car - it's a car. The manufacturer? Seems unlikely. We're going to need a brand new approach to liability.

However, when you think about the benefits of going autonomous, it does seem inevitable that full-scale adoption will eventually happen.

So, what are those benefits?

  1. Safety

    Concerns aside, autonomous vehicles would make roads a lot safer. If you take away human error, efficiency improves - and that means safety improves.

    According to Dr Nick Reed, principal human factors researcher at the Transport Research Laboratory, human error is a factor in 95% of the 1.2 million road deaths that happen around the world each year.

    A car isn't nervous about roundabouts. A car doesn't get distracted by a beautiful house for sale across the road. A car doesn't feel sadness, stress, excitement. All the things that affect our ability to safely operate a car would be set aside.

  2. Environmental friendliness

    We already have cars that use stop-start systems to save fuel and minimise emissions, by stopping the engine when a car is stationary.

    Making the whole process of travelling by car more efficient through automation would be of huge benefit to the environment and hopefully the consumer's running costs.

  3. Efficient road use

    With cars getting ever more connected, the self-drive function will undoubtedly work alongside things like navigation and parking systems. That relies on the development of truly accurate digital maps and traffic information but if we can get past these hurdles, life could get a lot easier for urban road users.

    8am, get in your car. 9am, pull up outside your office and wave goodbye to your car as it goes zooming off to park outside the city centre. 6pm, get into your waiting vehicle and tootle home.

    Autonomous vehicles could herald the end of the hour-long traffic jam that circles your office each morning. It could mean no more endless searching of multi-story carparks, eating into your shopping time. In short, driverless cars could make city journeys a lot nicer.

  4. Time saving

    Although I don't think any of us need to be spending more time on work emails, imagine being given back two hours of your day. Your car has it handled, leaving you free to catch up on Game of Thrones or finally tackle Chaucer (maybe).

    It's bizarre to picture, but fairly soon you could be getting up half an hour later and eating your breakfast/doing your homework/perfecting your eyeliner in the car.

  5. Mobility

    Technically, autonomous vehicles would allow people to drive who couldn't before, or make it a lot easier for those who found it a challenge. Disabled or elderly drivers could certainly be much more mobile.

    However, safety still relies on those drivers being able to take over when the technology can't quite cut it, whenever that is. A child running out into the road requires lightning reactions from a driver to avoid a tragedy. Would you trust a machine to have 100% success with avoiding hazards?

    That said, humans definitely don't have 100% success. Maybe road deaths will never completely disappear, but a significant improvement would be reason enough to sign up wholeheartedly for driverless cars.

What it means for insurance

I think people ask me for my opinion on driverless cars because they assume it will blow up the insurance industry. It will have an impact of course, but car insurance isn't about to be rendered obsolete by technology - it will evolve to meet the many new challenges.

Things insurers will need to consider:

  • Crashes in the future will mainly be caused by the car malfunctioning
  • Replacing equipment (including software) will be more expensive
  • In the case of manual override, liability would return to the driver
  • Anything 'connected' can be hacked by a malicious third party
  • System errors could affect thousands of vehicles at once

Adapt or die

ingenie is a prime example of a service provider listening to what consumers want, instead of consumers having to shape their lives around the demands of a compulsory product. Ask anyone looking for a financial product and they just want things to be simple. It's our job as insurers to make that happen, regardless of how rapidly consumer needs are changing.

If autonomous cars do look like achieving widespread take-up, insurance will adapt to the new technology quickly, no question.

It's going to be a very interesting journey.

Richard King

By Richard King

As founder of ingenie, Richard is passionate about helping young drivers get on the road safely and affordably. He appears on TV campaigning to improve young driver safety.

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ingenie is a car insurance brand for young drivers aged 17-25. We fit a black box in your car to assess your driving style. We'll review your policy 3 times a year and those who drive well could receive a discount.

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