Driverless vehicles on the road
– how close is our autonomous future?
By Caroline Bødkerholm, If
The majority of traffic accidents are caused by human error, which can be related to conscious acts such as speeding, alcohol, mobile phone use as well as stress or even simple distractions. Although human errors can be minimised or even prevented with advanced driver assistance systems, the question remains: are autonomous, self-driving vehicles safe? And there are plenty more questions, from legal concerns to insurance matters, alongside technical issues that are essential to consider. We have gathered specialists at If P&C Insurance within the field to talk about the possibilities and the risks involved.
Why look at insurance data?
Insurance data provides unique insight into the safety and development of advanced driver assistance systems on the way to fully autonomous vehicles. The quantity, availability, and representativeness of insurance data offers extensive insights into traffic safety. This data provides valuable information when evaluating real-world conditions, the reliability of traffic safety systems, as well as the safety of the vehicles on our roads.
If's Research Leader in Traffic Safety, Irene Isaksson-Hellman, comments:
“There is a general lack of crash data around vehicles equipped with the latest technology as the number of such cars involved in accidents is low. However, one enabler for early evaluations is insurance data to obtain the amount of data required to make this assessment accurately.”
Where are we today?
The industry is moving at an accelerated pace towards autonomous solutions. Anders Lindström, Casualty Underwriter at If P&C Insurance comments;
“Google is moving fast with the development of their robotaxi service, Waymo. One of the reasons is that the State of California is permitting fully driverless vehicle testing, and has since 2018. Currently, there are seven companies who have permits for driverless vehicle testing in California, with one company (Nuro) also being granted a permit for the use of driverless vehicles in their commercial delivery services.
Further, we have China and the US that are in a race to finalise the techniques and both countries want their companies to be the world leaders within this field."
Despite above examples, there is widespread doubt about the vision of a completely driverless traffic system becoming a reality any time soon.
Irene highlights, “the preferred environment for AVs is a fully-automated one, without pedestrians, cyclists and manually driven cars. Clearly, today’s big cities constitute a very complex environment for AVs, as the behaviour of pedestrians, cyclists and manual driven cars is impossible to predict.”
Drivers tend to trust the automation beyond its actual capabilities.
Still some way to go
The Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a classification system that defines the degree of autonomy by which a vehicle operates. Ranging from level 0-5, the driving automation begins with manually controlled vehicles and ends with a fully autonomous traffic system that does not require any human attention.
Today, the second level on this scale can be seen, in the technologies that are included in manufacturing and production, for ordinary vehicles operating on public roads. Level 2 is defined as having partial driving automation, which means semi-autonomous vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems including steering and brake/accelerating support. However, at this level the driver is fully responsible and is expected to take control of the car at any time.
Cars are increasingly equipped with these systems that help the drivers prevent accidents. Functionalities, such as lane keeping aid and autonomous braking, combined with Adaptive Cruise Control, help drivers stay in their lane and optimise distances, for example to the car in front of you. These are collision-avoidance features, that are already common in modern cars.
Challenges in the semi-autonomous phase
One of the emerging central issues in the semi-autonomous phase, is that humans have begun to rely too much on these systems. A lot of research is being done in this exact area, as drivers tend to trust the automation to beyond its actual capabilities.
According to Irene, “one example, is that drivers in semi-autonomous vehicles are more likely to distract themselves by using their mobile phone or reading, because the car is driving itself. This obviously affects the driver’s needed situational preparedness, should the driver be asked to take control over the vehicle. The driver must be able to immediately evaluate the traffic, understand the risk or dangerous situation ahead, decide on a safe course of action, and react quickly.”
In other words, there is always a risk of human error and it is critical to be alert and careful when operating a vehicle. It is vital that the driver takes the warnings seriously and reacts to these to avoid an accident. The human driver remains responsible for their actions on the road in all traffic situations.
Legal issues remain
Each country has its own regulatory statutes relating to vehicles on public roads. In many cases, a human driver is a fundamental requirement. In some environments, such as airports, autonomous transportation already exists, in the form of automated trains and busses. Nonetheless, it is vital to have a common framework on the legal matters relating to autonomous vehicles.
If’s Senior Legal Counsel, Sonja Dyrhage, highlights; ”it is difficult to give detailed rules before something is on the market. In Sweden for instance, the legislator has suggested several regulations in order to enhance the testing and development of different levels of automatic driving. However, no changes have been made in Sweden with relation to the general considerations regarding liability and rules concerning the requirement of a driver and driving licenses.
Any change to legislation is not going to come quickly, however further changes in the regulations, within the EU and globally, must be introduced and keep up the pace with the technically developments.''
From a technical viewpoint
If P&C Insurance has expertise in mobility trends and follows the legal aspects, technology developments and social considerations surrounding autonomous vehicles.
Irene states that, “we are studying advanced driver assistance systems and estimating the benefits from these. From our perspective, the ultimate aim is to prevent accidents, and reduce the number of fatal and serious accidents.
Fortunately, the number of deaths in traffic accidents continues to decline. We can say that traffic safety has improved and that vehicles are safer and more intelligent than ever before."
Some of the latest vehicle safety and driver-assist technologies include:
- Pre-sense or collision-avoidance, which automatically brakes the vehicle in a critical situation – recognising more and more things beyond cars including wildlife such as a moose or a deer, as well as pedestrians and cyclists.
- Lane keeping aids, which help keeping the vehicle in the lane.
- New technologies that are around the corner include monitoring the status of the driver, alertness and attention to the driving task.
Research at If has contributed to the understanding of new safety technologies where results have been referred to also globally. The research highlights that, according to statistics, the automatic emergency break (AEB) has been proven to be very effective. This together with similar findings by e.g. the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has led 20 automakers to a voluntary commitment, to add automatic emergency braking (AEB) systems as standard equipment by September 1st, 2022 in the United States.
The commitment is brokered by IIHS and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This represents more than 99 percent of the US auto market. Similarly, the European Union has reached a provisional political agreement on the revised General Safety Regulation. It is noted that, as of 2022, new safety-related technologies will become mandatory in European vehicles to protect passengers, pedestrians and cyclists.
Irene notes, ''the industry and its stakeholders, including insurance companies, need to be able to prove that these driver-supporting technologies and systems are effective and support the development and implementation of these life-saving technologies to the market faster."
Overall, trafc safety has improved and vehicles are safer and more intelligent than ever before.
From an insurance perspective
It is important to have balanced and functional rules and guidelines about sharing information and storing data with regards to accidents and the technical solutions involved.
Sonja explains, ''there is plenty of work to be done, for example, clarifying the definition of a driver and the driver's responsibilities when needed, and rules regarding civil and criminal liability.''
Sonja continues: “in 2018, an official report by the Swedish Government suggested several possible changes in different legislation areas, but so far, changes in legislation have only aimed to further allow and extend exceptions that will enhance testing and developing activities. Within the EU there is an interest to consider changes in the Product Liability Directive due to developments in automatic driving.''
As of today, the existing mandatory traffic insurance system, such as the one in Sweden, can be accurate and functional with small changes once autonomous vehicles take to the roads. It will be important that insurers and other parties, are given a right to receive and store data in order to be able to develop accurate liability, as well as recourse mechanisms, and to continue promoting safety, through better solutions in the transportation and traffic infrastructure.
Realising the vision
Irene concludes with a look into the future, “I believe that technology and the dialogue surrounding autonomous vehicles will continue to evolve opening up more possibilities and applications. In the future, more driverless vehicles will be taken to the roads, though with limitations and restrictions that will remain until the legislation and technology is mature enough to truly open the way for autonomous vehicles in city traffic, for example. Advanced driver assistance systems will become more and more intelligent as they move towards full automation.
As stated, technology is not the only challenge, this is also a matter of trust and acceptance across society as a whole. The social aspect is very important. Are we ready to change how we look at mobility and transportation, do we really want to buy a new expensive autonomous vehicle, or will we prefer to drive the car ourselves?"
Road traffic fatalities in Nordic countries 2011-2020
SSB, Statistikcentralen, Vejdirektoratet and the Swedish Transport Agency