A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Getting closer to George Jetson’s age, think of the time saved — and of the risks

By Keven Moore
Special to NKyTribune

The days where George Jetson hops in his flying saucer-like car from his Skypad Apartments in Orbit City to go to work at Spacely’s Space Sprockets may still a bit seem farfetched, but we are closer than you would have ever imagined.

A world where traffic jams and road rage will no longer exist; where commuters could sleep in an extra 30 minutes and apply their makeup, shave or take a nap in the autonomous vehicles on their way into work. A world where just in America alone, an estimated 45,000 lives could be saved annually and millions of others would not be injured.

Well that world is fast approaching and we recently learned that an Uber self-driving car struck a woman in Tempe, AZ while ‘in autonomous mode.” She later died. This appears to be the first known death of a pedestrian struck by an autonomous vehicle on a public road.

The Uber vehicle was in autonomous mode with a human safety driver at the wheel when it struck the woman, who was crossing the street outside of a crosswalk. As a result, Uber has temporarily suspended testing of its fleet of autonomous vehicles in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto until an investigation can be completed.

These autonomous vehicles, also known as a  driverless car,  self-driving car,  robotic car and unmanned ground vehicle are capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.

These autonomous cars use a variety of techniques to detect their surroundings, such as radar, laser light, GPS, odometry and computer vision. These advanced systems interpret sensory information to identify appropriate navigation paths, as well as obstacles and relevant signage. They must have control systems that are capable of analyzing sensory data to distinguish between different cars on the road.

The potential benefits of autonomous cars include reduced mobility and infrastructure costs, increased safety, increased mobility, increased customer satisfaction and reduced crime. Specifically, a significant reduction in traffic collisions and the resulting injuries; and related costs, diminishes the need for insurance and safety professionals like myself.

Autonomous cars are predicted to increase traffic flow; provide enhanced mobility for children, the elderly, disable and the poor; relieve travelers from driving and navigation chores; lower fuel consumption; significantly reduce needs for parking spaces, reduce crime and facilitate business models for transportation as a service, especially via the sharing economy.

All new technology comes with drawbacks. As these new autonomous vehicles (without drivers) come into the marketplace, what could go wrong? The fact is several factors will need to be considered such as: cybersecurity, the shift in liability, and changes in the insurance underwriting world to keep current with technology trends.

Today autonomous vehicles are classified by numerical format based on their capabilities:

• Level 0: Automated system issues warnings and may momentarily intervene but has no sustained vehicle control.

• Level 1 (”hands-on”): Driver and automated system shares control over the vehicle. An example would be Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) where the driver controls steering and the automated system controls speed. Using Parking Assistance, steering is automated while speed is manual. The driver must be ready to retake full control at any time. Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) Type II is a further example of level 1 self-driving.

• Level 2 (”hands-off”): The automated system takes full control of the vehicle (accelerating, braking, and steering). The driver must monitor the driving and be prepared to immediately intervene at any time if the automated system fails to respond properly. The shorthand ”hands off” is not meant to be taken literally. In fact, contact between hand and wheel is often mandatory during SAE 2 driving, to confirm that the driver is ready to intervene.

• Level 3 (”eyes off”): The driver can safely turn their attention away from the driving tasks, e.g. the driver can text or watch a movie. The vehicle will handle situations that call for an immediate response, like emergency braking. The driver must still be prepared to intervene within some limited time, specified by the manufacturer when called upon by the vehicle to do so. The 2018 Audi A8 Luxury Sedan was the first commercial car to claim to be able to do level 3 self-driving. The car has a so-called Traffic Jam Pilot. When activated by the human driver, the car takes full control of all aspects of driving in slow-moving traffic at up to 60 kilometers per hour. The function works only on highways with a physical barrier separating oncoming traffic.

• Level 4 (”mind off”): As level 3, but no driver attention is ever required for safety, i.e. the driver may safely go to sleep or leave the driver’s seat. Self-driving is supported only in limited areas (geofenced) or under special circumstances, like traffic jams. Outside of these areas or circumstances, the vehicle must be able to safely abort the trip, i.e. park the car, if the driver does not retake control.

• Level 5 (”steering wheel optional”): No human intervention is required. An example would be a robotic taxi.

To ensure the safety of our roadways cybersecurity needs to be addressed so that hackers cannot take control of these vehicles. Cities will need to evolve as well and will need to install the infrastructure into our roadways that enables the operation of Level 3 and Level 4 vehicles. Self-driving cars will require “smart roads” for their safe operation. That means cameras and sensors are built into roadways and street signs. Sensors use radar and LiDAR (light detection and ranging) to communicate with the vehicles.

According to a recent report from Lockton many local governments are already looking to invest in smart infrastructure that will allow communication between roads and the vehicles traveling on them. For example, Columbus, Ohio, recently won $65 million in grants to become the first US city to integrate self-driving cars, connected vehicles, and smart sensors. Atlanta, Georgia, has built a fiber and electrical network in its downtown corridor to support roadside sensors and cameras for driverless cars with hopes that technology companies will develop and test their products in the city. These “smart city” designs involve extensive communication networks that could still be vulnerable to cyber-attack.

An interruption in these interconnected systems could cause significant damage. Because it’s so new, this technology has not yet been put through its paces with security vulnerability testing. As cities begin to replace old infrastructure with new, the evaluation and monitoring of potential cybersecurity concerns will be crucial.

Over the years the focus of auto insurance has been on the owner’s liability, and coverage always followed the vehicle and the owner. Most coverage specifically covers an insured’s legal obligation for damages because of “bodily injury” or “property damage” caused by an accident that was the result of ownership, use, or maintenance of a vehicle. In most cases, if the owner is distracted, under the influence, or fails to properly maintain the vehicle and causes an accident, insurance will cover the damages to the injured third party.

But what happens when the vehicle is self-driving? Then where does coverage fall? Where does liability begin? What if somebody knowingly disobeyed traffic laws and steps or steers in front of an autonomous vehicle?

With autonomous vehicles, the owner has limited or no control over circumstances that may lead to an accident. In this case, does the law shift the liability to the manufacturers to cover all or a portion of the liability? Will it depend on the level of autonomy? Will manufacturers be willing to accept this additional liability? Will the reward outweigh those risks?

While the pace of adoption of autonomous vehicles is not easy to predict, but for the insurance industry, it is clear that individual auto premiums will decline in a significant and likely escalating manner. 

Where this liability shifts is still being determined. The truth is auto manufacturers will initially experience expanded liability and product risks as autonomous vehicles are initially introduced into our society, but I suspect that this will become too costly to the auto industry and they will soon to lobby our political leaders in Washington D.C. to help subsidize this burden by transferring the risk back down to benefactors, the American people in the form user fees or taxes to help offset these costs.

Therefore any savings that you were hoping for by the reduction in auto insurance costs will probably have to be applied to these fees or new taxes.

Change is good and according to an old African proverb, when the music changes, so does the dance. Regardless of our efforts the way in which we travel is changing and mankind will find this to be another major achievement; because he who rejects change is the architect of decay.

Be Safe My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services and is an expert witness. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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