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Last month, a car using self-driving features crashed with a human driver. That accident in Tempe, Ariz., did not result in any major injuries, but it did highlight new issues for the auto insurance industry. NPR's Yuki Noguchi asked how the industry might change its business model.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Warren Buffett's company owns insurance giant Geico. And in a February interview on CNBC, he said this.
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WARREN BUFFETT: If the day comes when a significant portion of the cars on the road are autonomous, it will hurt Geico's business very significantly.
NOGUCHI: It seems to make sense. If humans aren't driving the cars, who needs a car insurance policy?
RICK GORVETT: Well, it's certainly a topic of heavy conversation right now.
NOGUCHI: At least it is a big topic for Rick Gorvett of the Casualty Actuarial Society, a trade group for people who analyze risk. He says right now, insurance rates are calculated mostly based on the attributes of drivers - their claims histories and driving records. A driverless car changes that model. Gorvett says the conventional wisdom, not yet backed up by a lot of actual data, is that autonomous cars will help reduce much of the human error that is the cause of the vast majority of accidents. In other words, fewer accidents. But accidents will still happen, and when they do, they will more likely be the fault of machine, not man.
GORVETT: At least current thinking is that the manufacturers will be ultimately responsible for a lot of these future accidents when an automated vehicle is involved.
NOGUCHI: How much that burden shifts is also a key question. James Lynch, the chief actuary for the Insurance Information Institute, is watching the transition to autonomous vehicles. He says if manufacturers have to bear all the insurance costs, that would create a huge long-term expense for carmakers. And that, in turn, could create disincentives for development.
JAMES LYNCH: If you believe that the autonomous technology is going to be saving lives then you would want them to have some sort of a protection.
NOGUCHI: That's not what's happening in Michigan, where a recent law specified automakers will assume the liability when driverless systems are at fault. In any event, the era of full automation is many years away. And in the interim, drivers and autonomous cars will share the road. So Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, says for the most part fault and liability will be determined on a case-by-case basis, much in the same way it is now.
BRYANT WALKER SMITH: Who was speeding? Was there a stop sign? What was the weather? Did the vehicle fail? And in the future, the same questions will be asked.
NOGUCHI: The difference is just that the tech-savvy cars of the future will gather far more data to help determine fault in each instance.
SMITH: Details of that will be worked out by courts in individual cases. And those individual cases will provide the backdrop against which insurers start determining their exposure and then eventually the rates that they charge.
NOGUCHI: The problem, Smith says, is that insurance companies rely on historic information to formulate algorithms to help them predict future risk. But such data about driverless cars and accidents simply does not exist yet.
SMITH: When you have dramatically different technologies and new applications for automated driving, it makes predicting the future much harder because you don't have those reliable data about the past and present.
NOGUCHI: Today, an increasing number of conventional cars offer safety features like automatic braking and blind spot monitoring, capabilities that are partial steps toward automation. Insurance experts say if automakers collect and analyze more of that data, that should give them more valuable clues about how to think about risk in the future. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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