Driverless cars – how far have we come?

10 May 2019

Later this month will see another milestone achieved for AXA UK in the world of driverless cars. Our second project, as part of the Flourish consortium, will be coming to an end and gives us the opportunity to reflect on just how far we have come as well as looking to what the future may hold for this rapidly advancing technology.

I think it is fair to say that, from an insurance perspective, AXA has led the way in this area in the UK. Back in 2014 the business realised just how revolutionary these vehicles could be – both to the way we do business but also, more importantly, to society more broadly. That’s why we joined five, government-backed projects.

The Venturer project's Wildcat vehicle

Insurance is about protection – and true protection needs to consider prevention too. According to the World Health Organisation around 1.35 million people die on the roads each year. Perhaps most shockingly, road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29 years.

So, imagine insurance as an enabler of technology that could not only save thousands of lives, but also give independence and mobility solutions to people who are currently unable to drive and had the potential, in time, to change the way we plan our roads, cities and individual mobility. That was our starting point.

We never took the view that this was science fiction. In fact, as we showed in this video, what we are actually talking about is ever increasing levels of autonomy; building on advancements such as cruise control, lane assist and autonomous emergency breaking (AEB).

Just considering AEB shows the potential impact of increased of automation. According to Thatcham Research it has been found that cars with AEB have a 38 per cent reduction in real-world rear-end crashes. Thatcham has calculated that it has the potential to save 1,100 lives and more than 120,000 casualties over the next 10 years. That’s why it is great news that all new cars will be fitted with AEB as standard very soon.

Any technology that can have a positive impact on those statistics is worth exploring. We shouldn’t be talking in absolutes, however. Setting an expectation that there will be no accidents at all is not the right way to go about it. Error will still occur, as we have seen in incidents in the USA. If automated technology can have a meaningful impact and mitigate human error (after all around 95% of all road traffic accidents are caused by human error) it must be something we take seriously.

That’s why we helped the Government create the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act which provides the insurance framework for these vehicles on UK roads. It’s just a starting point, however, dealing with the liability issue of whether a driver or the vehicle is responsible in the event of an accident.

The Capri project's Westfield POD

Where Flourish comes in is considering the next steps. What happens when these vehicles begin to ‘talk’ with one another? Exchanging real-time information and data to relay accident information, for example, or where there are heavy levels of congestion.

As our previous reports with Burges Salmon LLP as part of the project talk about, this element of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs), where the cars are in constant contact with each other, brings with it new and emerging risks, not least cyber-security and data protection. The final report will consider these in more detail, considering the next steps we need to take.

Data will be particularly important, I feel, to whether we maximise the potential of this technology. I have written previously about the need for us to avoid creating data silos and making key data available so that the customer or consumer impact is always front of mind. With so many potential data-creation points where driverless cars are concerned, having a meaningful approach on data will become even more important.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, going forward is that the sheer pace of change means that consumer trust is more important than ever. All the benefits I have outlined above won’t come to fruition if we don’t play our part in bringing the public with us. Car manufacturers, governments and all sorts of different businesses are pulling in the same direction, but many people remain unconvinced of the need or use of driverless cars.

And so, it makes sense as projects end, to take a step back and take stock; to reflect on the powerful reasons for getting involved; and to ensure that wider societal benefits are not lost in the whirlwind of change.

In the past five years, we have taken the concept of driverless cars and made enormous progress; to have been involved with innovative projects such as Flourish, helped create a legislative framework and identified the areas where more work needs to be done is an extraordinary achievement and I look forward to the next chapter.