Driverless Technology

gears-1236578_1920In 2012, we ran an article discussing driverless technology and whether the motorhome world was ready for it. The results were overwhelmingly against it, with 98% saying that driving was a fundamental part of the motorhome experience, and a further 40% refusing to even entertain the prospect of owning a driverless motorhome. 4 years on, we want to see what advances have been made, whether the world is any closer to having driverless motorhomes hit the roads and how it will affect insurance brokers.

Google have spent the past 7 years researching driverless technology and testing it on real roads. In data released to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), between September 2014 and November 2015 Google’s autonomous vehicles in California experienced 272 failures and would have crashed on at least 13 occasions were it not for the intervention of the human test drivers present in the car. During this time period, the cars clocked up over 424,000 autonomous miles with only 69 occasions where the driver took control of the vehicle on their own initiative, but on these specific occasions Google felt it was justified that the driver took control; it admitted there were thousands more occasions where the driver overrode the car, but Google argue that these were unwarranted and the car would have coped anyway.

At the start of April this year, 6 convoys of 44 tonne driverless trucks set off from a variety of locations in Europe, and all convened in Rotterdam. They were manufactured by DAF, Daimler, Scania and Volvo respectively. They drove using optical sensors and coordinated their speed using wifi. The trucks move in tandem and drive close together in a bid to ease congestion which also reduces air resistance therefore saving money on fuel.

In the UK, the Department for Transport said it wants the UK to lead the way in testing driverless “HGV platoons”, with trials scheduled for later in the year on the M6 motorway. Unlike other places in the world, driverless vehicles can be tested anywhere in the UK without a permit, which is an attractive offer for car manufacturers and is good for the UK economy as it encourages them to open factories here. Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover are already doing this, and more are bound to follow. There are even long term plans to build a ‘smart road’ in the UK equipped with wifi that can speak with cars directly, and to introduce radar sensors to detect stationary vehicles and reduce accidents.

The main obstacles to overcome are regulatory and psychological. Many consumers are distrusting of self-driving technology, while government officials are still struggling to establish a set of overarching regulations to dictate everything from how the cars should interact with each other to what happens in the case of an accident.

In January 2016 a group of 13 insurers led by the ABI (Association of British Insurers) formed the Automated Driving Insurance Group (ADIG), which demonstrates just how seriously this technology is being taken. Driverless technology poses a unique series of challenges for insurers, the main one being the question of liability. It is estimated that 94% of accidents on British roads are the result of human error. If an accident does occur, is it the driver, the manufacturer or the system developers who should be held liable? This could mean a restructuring of the entire insurance industry and how it operates. There is also the impact it will have on the price of insurance premiums, which some research has estimated could be slashed by up to 80% over the next 25 years.

Law changes would also need to be considered as they will no longer be concerning the behaviour and liability of people, but rather of programmed automated vehicles. As there will be multiple manufacturers, it is crucial that all their different technologies work together, which will only be achievable by mutual cooperation and data sharing. Another consideration is the different levels of automation, how to class each vehicle and how to insure them respectively. If a driverless car had a crash with a car driven by a human, how could liability be established?

Despite all of the progress in these other areas of transport, nobody has applied it to the motorhome industry yet. The only serious looking attempt turned out to be nothing more than an elaborate ‘April fools!’ prank. Automated motorhomes would raise a different set of questions and concerns to insuring a regular or commercial vehicle. For example, would passengers be required to wear seatbelts? Would they be allowed to travel inside the motorhome or would they need to be sat in one of the front seats? Would trailers be covered or would they need separate policies?

Until this autonomous technology has been established, tried, tested and regulated, it is unlikely that there will be any advancements in the motorhome world. Automobiles are a bigger industry than motorhomes, so it is here that we will see the results of extensive research and development. The other major factor is, of course, demand. Autonomous long distance HGV’s make sense, as they can save a company money, help reduce the risks of accidents and are going on a simple A to B journey. Whereas a motorhome user may not have a fixed destination in mind but rather just hit the road with a sense of freedom, and see where the journey takes them. That spur of the moment decision to a random turnoff is not feasible with driverless technology; it takes the spontaneity out of experience.

If all vehicles were autonomous, then they may well never run into any problems, because they are all operating in a predictable way based on vast amounts of data and research; unfortunately, one thing you can never predict is human behaviour. Nobody is perfect, and even the most experienced driver can, in the heat of the moment, make a fundamental error.

This technology still has a long way to go until we are sat in the back of our motorhome having a cup of tea whilst it casually trundles along the M4.


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