The use of autonomous vehicle technology has long been hailed as a major weapon I the eradication of accident in the transportation systems of the future.
From land to sea human error is at the heart of the vast majority of accidents and incidents, therefore the use of autonomous technology to operate cars and vessels has been seen as a major plus. However, for the systems to work you have to remove human interaction.
Tesla and their CEO Elon Musk have been the high profile leaders of car and road vehicle technology so the accident last weekend in Texas that costs the lives of two people travelling in one of the firm’s Model S cars has hit the headlines.
The debate is whether the vehicle was using its Autopilot or Full Self Driving (FSD) at the time of the accident, a discussion which has only been heightened with police revealing that the two people in the vehicle were in a rear and the from passenger seats intimating that no-one was behind the wheel.
Tesla stressed Autopilot and FSD are, in fact, driver-assist features, and drivers are supposed to stay in their seat, keep their hands on the wheel, and be ready to take over at a moment’s notice if necessary.
It is a major blow for the use of autonomous vehicle technology. It has long been understood that for autonomous vehicles and vessels to operate with maximum efficiency all have to be operating without human influence. The ability for autonomous vehicles to share the road with human driven vehicles still present the risk for human led events that cannot be anticipated by the technology.
What makes the latest crash of such concern, quite apart from the tragic loss of life, is that initial report said the vehicle simply failed to recognise a bend in the road while travelling at speed.
Some years ago, at an event in the Lloyd’s Library on the potential use of autonomous vessels on the world’s oceans one expert extolled the benefits of the systems on safety with the use of defined routes that would see vessels traverse the waters in complete safety.
However, they added: “All of the technology and the benefits it can bring will mean nothing the day the first pictures of a vessel stuck on a beach are ever published”.
The Tesla system is designed to bring the car to a slow halt if the driver’s hands are off the wheel while it is in FSD mode, but drivers have been finding ways to get around the problem in an effort to allow the vehicle to drive independently.
The investigation continues and until there is definitive proof as to the events that led up to the accident the debate will continue. For the insurance sector the questions remain over how it can and will respond to the changing liability environment that autonomous vehicles will create.
Technology delivers huge benefits across society and the insurance industry will need to ensure it plays a part in how and when it is introduced.