Written by Director Holly Shepherd.


On an autumn day in 1830, The Duke of Wellington turned up in the North West of England for a grand occasion. The Duke was by now Prime Minister and he was met by Robert Stephenson with his famous steam locomotive Rocket that that won the Rainhill Trials in 1829. This new technology was still being tested but The Rocket was set to launch The Liverpool and Manchester Railway that very day. And then disaster struck.

First, there was a derailment after only 13 miles and then one of the dignitaries, panicked by the new steam locomotive, was tragically run down and killed. As the Rocket was a prototype it was not fitted with brakes and stopping meant throwing the gear in reverse. Sadly for the deceased, this process took some time longer than it did for him to jump clear. Yet despite this, the rail industry, in its infancy, survived and thrived.

Fast forward nearly two centuries and driverless vehicles are the latest technological advance making headlines for the wrong reasons. Tesla has suffered two high-profile losses in the USA and China. The former resulting in the first auto pilot death and the latter causing the removal of the term auto pilot from the features list altogether.

Like The Rocket, these incidents were disastrous. However, in the modern, digital age, these setbacks threaten to derail the development of self-driving vehicles. Yet the big difference is that this time, the fatalities per mile are dramatically lower than The Rocket. According to Tesla figures, this first fatality followed nearly 130 million safe miles, compared to a death every 96 million miles across all vehicles in the USA. So just how risky is it? It would be interesting to understand how the underwriters view this.

Meanwhile, whilst the technology is being played down in cars, it has been reported that start-up provider Otto will have software in trucks by the end of 2016. There is no launch date, but experts believe that auto pilot features will be rolled out in trucks before they are available in cars. In effect, the driver could potentially leave the wheel of a truck.

What does this mean for insurance world?

This presents a new risk and also an opportunity. As we reported earlier, a convoy of trucks travelling across Europe saved both fuel and reduced the risk of accidents from fatigue or driver distraction. These are very interesting times and we as an industry need to be prepared.

Clearly there has been a short-term loss of confidence and the likes of Tesla are suffering. However, rather like the Rocket, driver-less vehicles will not be going away.


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