Axa's David Williams on why insurers need to drive autonomous car initiatives

David Williams, technical director at Axa - october 2018

  • By removing human error, self-driving vehicles can improve road safety
  • Autonomous cars need to exchange information, raising the risk of data breach
  • Motor insurers might feel threatened by this technology but they need to embrace it to understand the changes it brings about 

Motor insurers must play an active part in the schemes that develop and test autonomous vehicles, despite the many issues that need to be ironed out, writes David Williams, technical director at Axa.

Paying the claims of customers is not the sole purpose of the insurance industry. Paying claims – and thus keeping our promises – is incredibly important, but just as vital is preventing claims by keeping our policyholders, and their possessions, safe.

To do this we, as an industry, have a duty to understand the changing world and consider its impact on our customers. One of the most intriguing developments on the horizon, which threatens to change the face of transport, is the advent of autonomous vehicles.

Driverless cars have the potential to transform the safety of our roads. We all know the vast majority, some 90%, of road traffic accidents, are caused by human error and given that there are 1.25 million deaths on the world’s highways, the impact of autonomous vehicles cannot be underestimated.

Besides safety, driverless cars could be the solution to many mobility issues. Those unable to drive, be it because of age or health, or those who live in remote areas where there is little or no reliable public transport, could have their lives transformed by cars that are available to them round the clock.

Access to driverless cars doesn’t have to be expensive. The roll-out of autonomous vehicles could completely change the way cars are owned, with motorists shifting away from buying a new car every few years, to using vehicles on a much more cost-effective per-trip basis.

However, we know that development and testing of driverless technology has thrown up some issues. The death of Elaine Herzberg in March, who was struck by a Volvo SUV being tested in autonomous mode in Arizona, rightly caused Uber to pause its North American autonomous vehicle testing programme.

Meanwhile, critics remain concerned about data and privacy issues. Driverless cars will have to talk to each other to navigate; this exchange of information could make them vulnerable. Many have asked whether driverless cars could be hacked to harvest our personal data – or worse – seize control of the vehicles themselves?

Concerns have also been raised about the impact driverless cars could have on the motor insurance market. With roads being much safer, and with car manufacturers holding much of the key information on customers, the sector could be unrecognisable from its operation today.

Despite the issues that need to be ironed out, we have embraced the development of autonomous vehicles and want to get to grips with what it means for our customers. We play an active part in five government-backed driverless schemes looking at the practical and legal implications of autonomous vehicles hitting our streets.

We fully understand that driverless technology is fighting a battle to win hearts and minds. As well as some industry players viewing autonomous vehicles as a threat, some consumers remain unconvinced by driverless cars.

But what is clear is that driverless cars are coming and the way we think about mobility and road safety will evolve beyond recognition. As an insurer keen on protecting our policyholders, being heavily involved in the development of driverless cars is our duty. After all, the best way to understand change is to embrace it.

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