People get into car accidents all the time. Robotic systems, on the other hand, are expected to be better drivers and drastically reduce the number of accidents on the road. Already, Google claims its driverless vehicles are safer than those with human drivers.
But one major auto insurance company, Farmers Insurance, begs to differ.
In a short and telling advertisement, the company shows its comic vision of the near future: An actual humanoid robot behind the wheel as it rear ends a parked vehicle, exclaiming “uh oh,” and then exiting and fleeing from the vehicle. The narrator exhorts viewers to be prepared and always buy insurance for uninsured drivers---or uninsured robots, as it were.
The ad is a bit silly, but it hints at some of the complications and business disruptions that driverless cars could bring. Insurance companies are worried because fewer and less serious accidents in the long-term means that car insurance premiums will have to decrease. According to the Chicago Tribune, one analyst predicts premiums will drop by 60% in the 2020s, as software and sensors become a bigger part of the driving experience (even if a human is still ultimately behind the wheel). However, as the Farmers Insurance ad indicates, maybe there will be new business or marketing opportunities from the technological shift.
Beyond the self-interest of insurance companies, there’s also bigger questions for society to consider. As the Farmers Insurance ad hints at, even though autonomous cars will be safer, there will eventually be some mistakes--maybe a software bug, or a freak series of circumstances that the sensors can’t anticipate, or an anonymous individual hacks the system. Who will be held responsible when a robot crashes a car, or worse, is responsible for someone’s injury or death?
These questions matter especially when the technology is still new and moving up the adoption curve. As any insurance company knows, people don’t intuitively understand statistics. It’s why many people are more afraid of flying than driving, even though you're far, far more likely to die in a car accident than in an airplane. People are more afraid of flying because they don’t feel in control. The first serious accident caused by an not-smart-enough algorithm or a not-sensitive-enough sensor is bound to be a major challenge to the fully driverless future.