Look Mom, No Hands!


By: Seth F. Kirby
On January 22, 2018 a Tesla Model S slammed into a parked fire truck on California’s 405 near Culver City.  The driver of the Tesla stated that prior to the accident he had the car’s autopilot system engaged.  This is just the most recent in a series of accidents in which Tesla’s autopilot system has been implicated.   At present, Tesla’s autopilot system is limited to what it refers to as Traffic-Aware Cruise Control.  This feature, which is also provided by other car manufactures, allows the car to maintain a lane and speed up or slow down depending upon traffic conditions.  The system relies upon driver input to observe and avoid stationary objects, which may be the true culprit that resulted in the recent crash.  Interestingly, all Teslas are equipped to function autonomously, taking its passengers to a destination with no human interaction.  Such features are not yet enabled due to the need to obtain regulatory approval, and the features of the current systems have been changed several times to encourage drivers to be attentive when behind the wheel (i.e. requiring the driver to maintain their hands on the wheel).
The advent of various levels of autonomous driving presents challenges and opportunities for the insurance industry.  Theoretically, the implementation of autonomous vehicles over the next decade or longer will result in fewer accidents and injuries as computers will be more reliable and predictable drivers.  Of course, machines can have errors, and on the road at 60+ mph, errors can have drastic consequences.  This begs the question.  As vehicles become autonomous, who will the auto carrier be insuring?  The easy answer is that the policy is issued to the individual that owns the car, so clearly the carrier is insuring the individual for their potential liability. In many states, however, the insurance “follows the car” and covers bodily injury and property damage arising from the use of the vehicle no matter who (or what) is operating the vehicle.  If the autonomous car makes a mistake, the law presently considers the human driver to be responsible for the vehicle’s operation and the liability is placed on the driver.  That seems reasonable in our present environment in which driver interaction is required for the system to operate.  It may seem less reasonable once the systems become fully automatic.  At that point, the individual’s carrier is essentially insuring the machine and its software, effectively turning auto liability policies into product liability policies.
In the short term, the transition between human and computer controlled driving presents problems as it can lull the driver into a false sense of safety.  It appears that when the driver has less interaction with the driving process their attention wanes and they may fail to avoid obvious hazards.  This is no different than the problems caused by other forms of distracted driving (texting, eating, tuning the radio), it is just a new dynamic that is being added to the roadway.  Eventually, the human element may be removed from the equation, but whether that will result in a net improvement in vehicle safety remains to be seen.  I fully suspect that many aspects of auto liability insurance will need to evolve as technology begins to take over the wheel.
If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Seth Kirby at [email protected].