The Big Question: Are insurers up to speed with the arrival of autonomous vehicles? With Pete Allchorne, partner at law firm DAC and vice president of FOIL
The first half of 2023 has seen a significant step forward with regard to the arrival of autonomous vehicles, with Ford the first automotive manufacturer in Europe to receive regulatory approval for its partial autonomous vehicle software, BlueCruise. Under the terms of the approval, the system can be fitted to the car manufacture’s Mustang Mach-E SUVs and used on a series of approved UK motorways.
While no doubt a significant moment, we are still some way off what most of us would consider to be full autonomous driving. The BlueCruise system is a actually a ‘Partial Driving Automation’ hands-free advanced driver assistance system, described by Ford as a “hands-off, eyes-on” technology.
In many ways, the technology is impressive. It claims to have the capability to maintain safe and consistent distances to the vehicles ahead, including when cars are slowing, and also monitors the person in the driving seat via infrared camera to ensure they are paying attention to the road and the vehicle. If the driver’s attention waivers, an alert will sound.
Of course, while the technology claims to monitor road markings, speed signs and evolving traffic conditions in order to control steering, acceleration, braking and lane positioning, it has its limitations. And- as we have seen with tests of autonomous vehicles in the US – they are not failsafe.
Still, it seems we are a crucial juncture for this nascent technology: the UK Government has recently announced the country’s roads could see self-driving vehicles by 2025 under plans which it said prioritise safety through new laws and will create thousands of new jobs in the industry.
The rhetoric from the government is certainly impressive. It believes that self-driving vehicles could revolutionise public transport and passenger travel, especially for those who don’t drive, as well as better connecting rural communities and reducing road collisions caused by human error. Further in the future, they could, for example, provide tailored on-demand links from rural towns and villages to existing public transport options nearby. They could also provide more direct and timely services that enable people to better access vital services such as schools and medical appointments.
However, as we see in this week’s stimulating Big Question from incoming FOIL president Peter Allchorne, the insurance market remains much more sceptical .
Ian Summers, Global Business Leader, AdvantageGo
Pete Allchorne, partner at law firm DAC and head of motor liability, as well as the current vice president of the Forum of Insurance Lawyers (FOIL), believes the brakes are set to be applied to the move to autonomous vehicles by the government and it will disappoint many in the insurance market.
“The implementation of autonomous vehicles in the UK’s roads has been a topic of a great deal of debate across the motor industry, the insurance industry and the legal profession,” he says. “However, at present the biggest issue is what can best be described as the apathy from the government in its efforts to move forward the proposed Transport Bill.”
“The bill is key to unlocking the door to the legislation and regulations to enable the implementation of certain levels of self-driving capabilities.”
Allchorne, adds that the UK had been seen as a leader in the area of autonomous vehicles, driven by the proactive approach of the government in creating new legislation.
Since 2015, there has been a move to create the regulatory environment for the use of autonomous vehicles. There was further regulation in 2020, but the much anticipated detailed regulations needed have been promised within the upcoming Transport Bill, which would provide insurers with the basis on which its products could be structured.
“The Transport Bill was on its way but we have now been left with the news that there looks to be no time for the bill to be passed in the current parliamentary session,” he explains. “Where the UK had pulled ahead of the US, China and Germany, is now in danger of falling behind. It has seen some manufactures losing their appetite to develop these vehicles.”
Allchorne says there has been an increasing push for driver assistance systems, with the Ford BlueCruise a key example.
“One issue is that the consumer is still struggling to differentiate between driver assistance systems such as BlueCruise and autonomous systems. It makes for a degree of confusion,” he adds. “Driver assistance will allow hands off driving using existing technology but includes a driver monitoring system to ensure the driver is looking at the road. It is not new but it has not been used in the automotive industry before.”
Indeed, BMW is said to be creating a system of its own as the market tests the boundaries of what may be acceptable to authorities and regulators. However, as Allchorne explains, as the systems comes online insurers will need to be ready:
“These systems are such that they will be placed into cars which are at the top end of the manufacturers’ ranges and are therefore expensive,” he explains. “It will mean that insurers will have to factor in they will be costly to repair should an incident occur. It is also likely that the systems will be installed in electric vehicles.
“As we have seen with the current range of EVs the inability to accurately investigate the damage to a EV’s power systems and batteries is leading to those vehicles being written off. Part of the challenge is delivering the level of training and expertise within traditional body shops that will allow them to carry out repairs on these vehicles. There is a need to look at these vehicles in a very different way.”
Allchorne says that for insurers, their ability to create the products that will enable the use of self-driving and autonomous vehicle systems will hinge on the legislation and regulations that will be put in place.
“Until the legislation is in place there is no ability for autonomous or self-driving vehicles to use the road in any significant way… it leaves the industry with a great degree of uncertainty.”