When automotive designers and engineers consider the safety and repair aspects of new model designs, regard must also be given to potential insurance costs. NCAP (New Car Assessment Program) results are a priority, and achieving the highest star rating in Euro and U.S. NCAP assessment is significant to a car’s overall success.
But the advent of autonomous vehicles and their associated new technologies takes vehicle safety and associated insurance issues into a new dimension. In the insurance industry the challenge has been dubbed “autonomous ambiguity.”
Now U.K. insurers have set out minimum criteria for a vehicle’s automated systems following the British Government’s commitment detailed in its 'Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill.'
“It is crucial that there is a clear definition of what constitutes an automated vehicle,” observed Matthew Avery, Director of Research at Thatcham Research, a leading independent organization long associated with vehicle safety and its direct link to insurance.
Regulators and insurers require this to classify and insure vehicles appropriately, he said, while consumers need to understand the functionality and capability of the vehicle and their own responsibilities. Consequently, "a system that needs the driver to control or monitor the vehicle in any way cannot be classified as automated.”
Ben Howarth, Senior Policy Adviser for Motor and Liability at the Association of British Insurers, agrees. “There will inevitably be a transition period from today’s cars to the vehicles of the future, via vehicles which offer gradually increasing levels of autonomy. There is the potential for confusion during this interim stage when people could wrongly think their vehicles can be left alone to manage a journey independently," he said.
Insurers want to see manufacturers being absolutely clear about how they describe what their vehicles can do. So a multi-point checklist has been drawn up by Thatcham and insurers, to define a truly automated vehicle.
In pole position is “naming”—clearly describing automated capability. This is closely followed by legality, complying (in the U.K.) with traffic laws and the national Highway Code, and then by the need to be location specific, i.e. functionality is limited to specific types of roads or areas via geo-fencing.
Other “musts” include transfer of driving control (handover phase) that follows a clear “offer and confirm” process. Also, a vehicle must manage all reasonably expected situations by itself.
The list also covers “unanticipated handover” with adequate and appropriate notice given if the vehicle needs to unexpectedly hand back driving control to a driver, the vehicle completing a “safe stop” if unable to continue or if the driver fails to take back control.
Emergency intervention when vehicles can avoid or prevent an accident by responding to an emergency is also listed, as are back-up systems and fitment by the OEM of a “black box” accident data recorder. The data would also help to confirm if the driver or vehicle was in control, in order to determine liability in the event of an accident.
Howarth says insurers recommend that the checklist is also criteria that governments and vehicle manufacturers could use to define what is and isn’t safe use of an automated car.
At Thatcham, Avery adds: “These descriptors will shine a light into the potentially dangerous gray area that semi-automated vehicles could create. It is also important to shift the focus onto the safe performance of a vehicle’s automated system. We will therefore assess new vehicles against these criteria to determine if a car is assisted or automated and to drive standards in automated performance."
He noted that this will require a constant dialogue with carmakers as the technology develops. U.K. insurers are also calling for data on automated functionality to be available at an individual vehicle level, identifiable via the Vehicle Identification Number, to facilitate an accurate record to be kept of which vehicles are running on older software or are overdue important maintenance.