Insurance industry in driver’s seat as federal regulations on self-driving cars inch forward

Easing people’s concerns around autonomous vehicles is just one way insurance companies can help

Insurance industry in driver’s seat as federal regulations on self-driving cars inch forward


By Alicja Grzadkowska

Human drivers have their moments of weakness, namely driving with distractions despite knowing the risks of checking a text, scrolling through a social media feed, or taking a call when they’re behind the wheel. While autonomous vehicles have had their own safety challenges, the number one reason to support the development of highly automated driving systems (ADS) is the technology’s potential to enhance safety and save lives, according to an analysis from the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC).

The regulatory framework, however, still needs to catch up to accommodate autonomous vehicles since federal regulations are still based on a human’s operation of a vehicle – what NAMIC’s whitepaper, titled “Validating Safety: The Next Phase in Developing Automated Driving Systems,” refers to as outdated safety requirements that are not applicable to new technologies.

“There are not really safety standards right now with respect to autonomous vehicles,” said Tom Karol, NAMIC’s general counsel – federal, though the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been working towards changing policy to adapt to autonomous vehicles. “The theory [is] that if you don’t need a steering wheel in a fully autonomous vehicle, then all the safety requirements of collapsibility and impact and airbags for a steering wheel could not be there. Rather than adding on new requirements for autonomous vehicles at this point, the focus of the NHTSA has been to examine which ones they can get rid of.”

The whitepaper noted that insurance companies will hold a key position in critical issues around ADS development, such as passenger safety, liability, and compensation, though Karol told Insurance Business that there’s another way the industry can contribute to autonomous vehicle adoption and help ease some consumers’ skepticism around self-driving cars.

“We think that with the increased data that we can get, [and] the role of the insurance companies in terms of looking at frequency and severity of damage, assessing that, and providing coverage, we can actually help promote the confidence of the consumer in truly safe automated vehicles.”

After all, insurance companies have historically played a large part in moving auto safety forward, added Karol.

“If you look at things like seatbelts and airbags and other safety features, the insurance industry has been probably the largest promoter of auto safety features over the last 50 years,” he explained. “In addition to that, the insurance companies completely sponsored the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), where people would actually crash test these things and have the crash test dummies, and put out the safety reports.”

The industry can then be an important counter-balance to auto manufacturers, who are interested in safety too, but are often under pressure to develop and sell cars as fast as possible.

“We’re big advocates of, let’s make sure these are safe before they get on the roads, and we think we’re the leading voice with respect to that,” said Karol.


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