February 3, 2022

Self-driving vs. hands-free driving: Who is liable in a crash?

autonomous driving will impact insurance coverage and costs

It’s exciting to envision a near future in which cars and trucks do all the driving autonomously. Picture this:

Skillfully and artistically designed vehicles, equipped for any situation, safely navigate our roadways while we simply enjoy the ride. Fully equipped with sensors, cameras and alerts, these vehicles are programmed to “read” any traffic condition and seamlessly avoid a collision with other vehicles or pedestrians. The result is a smooth-flowing traffic system to keep vehicles safely on track in an orchestrated symphony of coordinated movement on roads and highways across the country. Traffic crashes, injuries and deaths plummet, saving thousands of lives every year. Millions of dollars in annual vehicle and property damage costs are avoided. Individual insurance premiums drop precipitously, saving money for vehicle owners.

We are definitely not there yet. But we are making progress.

Right now, most of the so-called “self-driving” (“autonomous”) vehicles fall short of the mark. Hands-free driving is the accurate way to classify them. So who is liable in a crash? The answer depends on who is ultimately in charge while the vehicle is operating. The impact on insurance coverage and costs will evolve as the technology does.

Moving toward fully autonomous vehicles

A lot has happened to move autonomous-driving technology forward over the past several years. Waymo has a driverless taxi service in Phoenix with nearly full autonomy. The Waymo Driver achieves a Level 4 on the six-stage (0-5) scale created by the Society for Automotive Engineers International (SAE). But whether to call it fully autonomous is debatable because it does require human interaction at times (via remotely operating human “supervisors” at Waymo), depending on road circumstances.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for your own fully autonomous car. Right now, no cars are completely self-driving. An expert from the Insurance Information Institute (cited in this article) projects that autonomous cars will not be available until sometime after 2040. On the other hand, manufacturers assert they will have “autonomous” vehicles available as early as 2024. However, their definition of “autonomous” may vary significantly from the SAE standard.

Tesla is a shining example of this type of hyperbole. Tesla, Ford, GM and others continue to make advances in hands-free driving — but this is an altogether different thing from fully autonomous driving. Although often touted as “self-driving,” these cars have yet not successfully moved past Level 2 in the SAE scale. The current level of hands-free driving in these cars still requires a human who is actively paying attention, who can quickly take charge of the vehicle if, and when, needed.

Who is liable in a crash?

As driving technology expands and moves from hands-free, assistive tech toward complete autonomy, insurance coverage needs and costs will change. The transition has already begun, as cars employ increasingly greater technology. As hands-free driving increases, driver error decreases. As a result, crashes decrease, according to an analysis by the National Safety Council. For example, lane-departure sensors and automatic emergency breaking are two groundbreaking innovations that improve traffic safety. But the blame still goes to the human driver in a crash involving vehicles using driver-assistance tech (SAE levels 0-4). That’s because a human is required to intervene in an emergency. This is true for the entire current crop of so-called self-driving cars.

Theoretically, once car manufacturers truly achieve fully automated driving technology, the blame will shift more toward them, as “manufacturer defect” is cited in vehicle crashes. (Although it will most likely be tested in court as part of a long-drawn-out process.) As a result, auto insurance premiums should begin to decrease for the individuals who own and operate these cars.

Other insurance implications include cost of vehicle repairs, which continue to rise as cars and trucks include more and more computerized and tech-laden parts (e.g., sensors and cameras) to replace after a crash. This is the biggest reason auto insurance claims have risen over recent years. However, it stands to reason that if crashes decrease, so will insurance claims, and therefore, so will insurance rates for individual drivers.

Take advantage of assistive tech now

The transition to fully autonomous vehicles will take some time, despite the hype from car manufacturers. While the future may not look exactly like the one envisioned at the top of this article, perhaps we will reach something close to that level of performance and safety, eventually. In the meantime, as we inch ever closer toward a future with self-driving cars, we can make the most of the assistive tech currently available. If your car is equipped with driver-assistance technology, be sure to read the owner’s manual to learn exactly how to use these features as designed, safely. Contact your Bradish agent to find out if your vehicle’s features may even qualify for a discount on your auto insurance premiums.

by Kris A. Mainellis