Your (Driverless) Ride is Here

By Scott Hullinger
Director of Loss Control & Risk Management
CopperPoint Insurance Companies

Commuters in the East Valley will be seeing more driverless minivans on the streets of Chandler as Waymo, the former Google project, launches the country’s first driverless ride-hailing service.

Yes, a minivan will be driven by technology. No human will be in the drivers seat, ready to seize control of the steering wheel, should things go awry.

We’re talking about an automated system that performs all driving tasks, under any condition a human could perform. Waymo recently posted a video of its highly automated vehicle (HAV) to share what it might be like to be a passenger, and the company is taking applications for early riders.

Research also is progressing with autonomous trucking, an industry that already uses technology heavily to deliver freight, ore and other products.

That prompts a few questions:

  • Will driverless tech mean a loss of delivery jobs?
  • How will HAVs be insured?

As a premier provider of workers’ compensation insurance, CopperPoint is keeping a keen eye on these tech developments.

While CopperPoint does not currently work with trucking companies, we do insure and provide service to many operations with service fleets of small trucks and vans. We are keeping a close eye on HAV research and discussions, to ensure we are ready down the road to help our customers navigate through this automated development.

The federal government says it is committed to keeping our roads and highways safe, regardless who or what is driving on them. More than a year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation created an official “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” in which safety is the top priority.

However, automated vehicle industry proponents argue regulations may slow the development of HAVs, which could result in hampering innovation and growth.

Editors at Bloomberg suggest HAVs can lead to “faster employment growth,” with trucking jobs, for example, evolving into “tech-and-logistics work –- requiring new skills, but also offering better pay and working conditions.”

But who will be responsible if there is an accident?

Right now, driverless car companies say they assume responsibility during the testing phase. What happens later could be tricky.

In the white paper “Insurance and the Evolution of Automated Driving Systems,” author Tom Karol, general counsel, federal, for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC), wrote insurers must shift their perspective of vehicles they cover. He wrote the new technology, consumer use and business models will spawn “waivers, conditions, carve outs, exceptions, limitations and liability caps.”

From the commercial insurance perspective, the question will be how to insure the driverless vehicle; liability coverage will still be needed. Manufacturers may say that they will assume the liability for accidents involving their driverless vehicles, but it’s highly likely that those “assumptions” will come with a lot of stipulations and conditions.

Tech and industry experts say HAV advantages include e eliminating driver fatigue and human error, which could translate into increased driving hours and fewer accidents. The latter is what attracts the support of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).

At ADOT, self-driving vehicles are being embraced because “computer-controlled cars won’t drive drunk, distracted or dangerously,” and will offer people with disabilities a way to be mobile. Officials from the department are partnering with public safety and police experts on the Arizona Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee.

Driverless cars are developing in the fast lane, while autonomous trucks have miles to go, but make no mistake: HAVs on the highway’s horizon is coming – probably sooner than we expect.

Scott Hullinger is Director of Loss Control and Risk Management for CopperPoint Insurance Companies, a premier provider of workers’ compensation insurance and property and casualty insurance products. 

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