Robot cars are here – if they can be insured

October 12, 2010

Robot cars are here. The waiting is over. Get used to it – but only if the insurance companies let you!

The fact is that robot cars have in fact been with us for five years already, as noted by FuturePundit back in 2006:

Skepticism about the feasibility of computer-operated vehicles became harder to maintain when the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Grand Challenge periodic contest for autonomous driverless vehicles finally produced winners in October 2005.

So why aren’t the car showrooms full of self-driving robot cars? That’s a great question. One that was answered, for me, at the Singularity Summit Australia a few weeks ago here in Melbourne by James Newton-Thomas.

James spoke about his career with AI (artificial intelligence) – way back in the 1980s he had developed loan officer systems that the human loan officers came to rely upon! Through the 1990s he worked on autonomous vehicle AIs for Caterpillar (the big name in mining vehicles.) The comment that really piqued my interest was this : having developed a robot vehicle to replace human operators, the stumbling block to implementation around the year 2000 was that the insurance premium was so high that it wasn’t a financially viable option.

Now that is really interesting. This means that ten years ago JNT had developed a robot vehicle that was ready for work in the mining industry but was essentially blocked by the insurance industry!

Why was the premium so high? I am not an insurance industry expert, so I couldn’t tell you. James did mention that his impression at the time was that since there was no history, no set of facts upon which to calculate the risk, the insurers erred on the cautious side (as they should be wont to do) and went high. Really high.

So that’s where we were until this week. Robot cars are certainly possible, because they have been built. Sure, not in mass production. Sure there are still limitations, but those are being rapidly eroded.

Then everything changed – Google announced on October 9th, 2010 that they not only had built robot cars, but that they had driven them over 225,000km in San Francisco!

Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles.

Wow – that means there’s over five thousand driving hours (assuming 25mph average urban speed) of robot cars. In an urban environment.

Is that enough data for an insurer to make a better assessment? We can only hope so.


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