Autonomous vehicles have always been the domain of cheap sci-fi books and impractical tech demos. But, in the past few years huge strides in technology have been made and it seems like we've almost caught up with the future. Experts say the self-driving car will be a reality for Canadians, possibly within the next decade. But, are we ready for them?
Google's bubble dome car, that looks somewhere between a classic VW Beetle and a golf cart, is the poster child of the self-driving future. It's small, cute, and getting smarter everyday. Since debuting the program in 2009, Google's smart cars have only been involved in a handful of accidents, and only one that is directly attributable to the car's decision making process (a fender bender with a San Francisco city bus back in February). Combining all the different model's road time, that's one accident for over two million miles of travel – not too shabby. But not perfect either.
The prospect of autonomous cars involved in collisions raises an interesting question -- who is liable in this situation? Right now, if two drivers get into an accident, the damages would be covered by personal insurance policy of the person found at fault for the accident. But how does it work if the at fault vehicle was being piloted by a computer? Who picks up the tab?
Those are details that have yet to be hammered out.
Currently, self-driving cars require a licensed operator in the driver seat ready to take over if something goes wrong, so that implies some responsibility on the driver's part. But, if self-driving cars become as popular and ubiquitous as many analysts think they will, that is unlikely to always be the case (more and more people won't bother with a license).
So It would seem inappropriate to lay the blame on the passenger of a self-driving car. They didn't make the poor decision that led to the accident after all, it would be the same as blaming someone in the backseat right now. At the same time though, there needs to be some sort of accountable party.
The most reasonable suggestion passes that responsibility to the car manufacturer. That seems fair, if they say their car is safe to be on the road, they better to be ready to stand behind it. That means accepting responsibility for when it messes up and being ready to pay for any damages that result. In this scenario, personal insurance is replaced with a larger umbrella policy paid by the manufacturer.
Wait, does that mean no more car insurance? BRING ON THE ROBO-CARS!
Not exactly. Sadly, it's a little early to start celebrating the death of car insurance. While the idea that you won't have to pay monthly collision and accident premiums is certainly appealing, it's a lot less exciting if that just results in more expensive car payments. If the manufacturer simply passes the buck to the customer, it could be even more expensive than current insurance (you won't be able to negotiate your own rate or shop around for the best package for example). And that still doesn't account for things like theft, vandalism, and mechanical failure. Those aspects of insurance are unlikely to change anytime soon.
Even if liability isn't an issue in the future, you're still going to want a professional broker on your side, advocating for the best rates and coverage possible. Staebler has been in the insurance business since 1987, institutionally, we can remember a time when horse-and-cart insurance was a pressing concern for our clients.
Times change, technology moves forward. The self-driving car introduces a lot of open-ended questions, but that's okay. Our guiding principals remain the same as they were in 1987 - putting our clients first and working for them before anything.
So, are we ready for the self-driving car? Absolutely.