Closing Gaps in the Gig Economy

Captives are creating more flexible and cost-effective options for the rapidly evolving shared economy sector.
By: | July 27, 2017 • 6 min read

The sharing economy is booming right now.

Expected to top $335 billion by 2025 according to PwC, the gig economy, as it’s otherwise known, already touches most of our lives — from hailing a ride on Uber or Lyft to finding a place to stay on Airbnb.


Essentially, it’s an economic system whereby assets or services are shared between private individuals via the Internet, making it relatively easy to set up and with little overhead.

But the often globally networked nature of the sharing economy presents challenges, along with a workforce comprised heavily of independent contractors exposed to a host of risks on a daily basis. Add to that a lack of loss history and increasing regulatory scrutiny, and it’s often too expensive or hard for these companies to find cover.

However, an alternative solution has now emerged for those companies willing to take on their own risks. Through owning a captive, companies can retain more of their risk and craft manuscripted coverage language specific tailored to their exposures, as well as gain direct access to reinsurers willing to underwrite those risks.

Lyft and Uber, the ride sharing services, were among the first to take the plunge, setting up captives in Hawaii, and now more are hopping on the bandwagon.

Sharing Economy Risks

Melissa Neis, vice president at Parr Insurance Brokerage, said the sharing economy is difficult to insure because it is a relatively new area lacking sufficient loss history.

“It can be tricky because there’s a lack of actuarial data to support a long-term risk analysis, so it’s hard for insurers to understand what kind of pricing will support the exposures concerned,” she said.  “Also, as technology continues to advance and companies’ platforms and business models are constantly evolving, their exposures can also significantly change, meaning that their policy language has to be recrafted, making them difficult to underwrite.”

Sean Rider, executive vice president and managing director, consulting and development, Willis Towers Watson

Monica Everett, vice president, sales, York Alternative Risk at York Risk Services Group, said that what makes these companies even harder to assess is their ever-changing, often global workforce and the risks they face, with many independent contractors working for them who are not classified as employees and so are not covered under workers’ compensation.

“Where does the risk for a company start and stop?” she said. “Then there is the issue of U.S. Courts granting settlements to independent contractors for injuries sustained in the course of their assignment.

“This often means that companies must insure independent contractors regardless of how the companies classify them. In addition, an independent contractor’s job can be as risky as that of a full-time employee.

“Depending on the circumstances, companies may have limited control over the safety of these workers, which adds to the complexity of the risk.”

Ward Ching, managing director at Aon Global Risk Consulting, added that the business models of companies in the gig economy don’t often fit the class codes and mold of traditional companies with insurable risks such as workers’ compensation and general liability, making it harder for underwriters to assess their exposures.

“The terminology is changing, the exposures are changing and the speed of change is just amazing,” he said. “Their policies and procedures, and whole approach to risk is changing on an almost quarterly or more frequent basis making it hard for traditional insurers to keep up.”


Sean Rider, executive vice president and managing director, consulting and development at Willis Towers Watson, said that another reason these risks are so difficult to assess is they often cross over between different types of insurance including property/casualty, accident and health, and personal lines.

“Because they often transcend the silos between commercial and personal activities, traditional carriers struggle with crafting coverage that meets their stakeholders’ needs,” he said. “Added to that, the confluence of the multiple aspects of the coverage and the relatively new exposures as well as the lack of a holistic marketplace make them a prime candidate for captive utilization.”

Tina Summers, senior vice president, Marsh Captive Solutions, added that the uncertain regulatory environment for sharing economy companies has also caused concern among insurers.

“This has resulted in a limited number of markets willing to write the risk, limited availability of capacity and high premium pricing,” she said. “Over the past few months, we have seen some new entrants to the market with appetite for sharing economy risk; however, we expect coverage and pricing flexibility to remain reasons for companies in this space to look at captives.”

Ideal Solution for Unique Risks

For those companies willing to take on their own risks, Summers said that captives are a viable solution, enabling them to finance coverage for these risks in a more cost effective way.

“Funding of retained risk in a captive may provide leverage when negotiating with commercial insurance markets,” she said. “It may also improve unit economics due to the flexibility a captive allows.”

Captives also enable these firms to craft their own manuscripted coverage language and to determine their own pricing, said Thad Hall, partner, business development at Y-Risk, a managing general underwriter specializing in the sharing economy. Y-Risk is currently in the process of setting up its rent-a-captive facility.

“Because they often transcend the silos between commercial and personal activities, traditional carriers struggle with crafting coverage that meets their stakeholders’ needs.” — Sean Rider, executive vice president and managing director, consulting and development, Willis Towers Watson

There are additional benefits for companies to consider, said Hall.

“Several insurers had a tough time after the recession and pulled back on coverage or pulled out altogether, but being in a captive enables companies to avoid these types of cycles.”

Captives also offer the advantage of a policy that doesn’t need to be constantly underwritten every year, said Jillian Slyfield, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions.

“You can tweak it every quarter or as required and make the changes needed to enable the company to grow and grow quickly.”

Everett added that captives are a good fit for the culture and entrepreneurial spirit of sharing economy companies, while giving greater control to the parent company and offering a significant risk/reward based incentive too.

“The parent company can control how claims are handled and their premiums are developed utilizing an actuarially developed loss pick which, if given enough history, should predict future losses accurately,” she said.

She added that captives also allow companies to insure the risks they previously carried on their balance sheets as policy exclusions on standard policies such as wage and hour coverage and cyber risks.


Rider concluded that a captive’s key selling point is allowing these companies to aggregate multiple risks across different portfolios, while enabling them to buy reinsurance from markets that have a track record of providing capacity across P&C, A&H and personal lines.

“Captives create the opportunity to consolidate a company’s diverse cross section of risks in one place and to then build a reinsurance structure that can accommodate that unique risk portfolio,” he said. “This enables them to craft an insurance program that connects with their stakeholders’ needs and to create an optimal risk transfer solution.” &

Alex Wright is a U.K.-based business journalist, who previously was deputy business editor at The Royal Gazette in Bermuda. You can reach him at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Report: Marine

Crewless Ships Raise Questions

Is a remote operator legally a master? New technology confounds old terms.
By: | March 5, 2018 • 6 min read

For many developers, the accelerating development of remote-controlled and autonomous ships represents what could be the dawn of a new era. For underwriters and brokers, however, such vessels could represent the end of thousands of years of maritime law and risk management.

Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk

While crewless vessels have yet to breach commercial service, there are active testing programs. Most brokers and underwriters expect small-scale commercial operations to be feasible in a few years, but that outlook only considers technical feasibility. How such operations will be insured remains unclear.

“I have been giving this a great deal of thought, this sits on my desk every day,” said Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk, a major UK underwriter. Johnson sits on the loss-prevention committee of the International Union of Maritime Insurers.

“The agreed uncertainty that underpins marine insurance is falling away, but we are pretending that it isn’t. The contractual framework is being made less relevant all the time.”

Defining Autonomous Vessels

Two types of crewless vessels are being contemplated. First up is a drone with no one on board but actively controlled by a human at a remote command post on land or even on another vessel.

While some debate whether the controllers of drone aircrafts are pilots or operators, the very real question yet to be addressed is if a vessel controller is legally a “master” under maritime law.


The other type of crewless vessel would be completely autonomous, with the onboard systems making decisions about navigation, weather and operations.

Advocates tout the benefits of larger cargo capacity without crew spaces, including radically different hull designs without decks people can walk on. Doubters note a crew can fix things at sea while a ship cannot.

Rolls-Royce is one of the major proponents and designers. The company tested a remote-controlled tug in Copenhagen in June 2017.

“We think the initial early adopters will be vessels operating on fixed routes within coastal waters under the jurisdiction of flag states,” the company said.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.”

Once autonomous ships are a reality, “the entire current legal framework for maritime law and insurance is done,” said Johnson. “The master has not been replaced; he is just gone. Commodity ships (bulk carriers) would be most amenable to that technology. I’m not overly bothered by fully automated ships, but I am extremely bothered by heavily automated ones.”

He cited two risks specifically: hacking and fire.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.” — Rolls-Royce Holdings study

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, asked an even more existential question: “From an insurance standpoint, are we even still talking about a vessel as it is under law? Starting with the legal framework, the duty of a flag state is ‘manning of ships.’ What about the duty to render assistance? There cannot be insurance coverage of an illegal contract.”

Several sources noted that the technological development of crewless ships, while impressive, seems to be a solution in search of a problem. There is no known need in the market; no shippers, operators, owners or mariners advocate that crewless ships will solve their problems.

Kinsey takes umbrage at the suggestion that promotional material on crewless vessels cherry picks his company’s data, which found 75 percent to 90 percent of marine losses are caused by human error.


“Removing the humans from the vessels does not eliminate the human error. It just moves the human error from the helm to the coder. The reports on development by the companies with a vested interest [in crewless vessels] tend to read a lot like advertisements. The pressure for this is not coming from the end users.”

To be sure, Kinsey is a proponent of automation and technology when applied prudently, believing automation can make strides in areas of the supply chains. Much of the talk about automation is trying to bury the serious shortage of qualified crews. It also overshadows the very real potential for blockchain technology to overhaul the backend of marine insurance.

As a marine surveyor, Kinsey said he can go down to the wharf, inspect cranes, vessels and securements, and supervise loading and unloading — but he can’t inspect computer code or cyber security.

New Times, New Risks

In all fairness, insurance language has changed since the 17th century, especially as technology races ahead in the 21st.

“If you read any hull form, it’s practically Shakespearean,” said Stephen J. Harris, senior vice president of marine protection UK, Marsh. “The language is no longer fit for purpose. Our concern specifically to this topic is that the antiquated language talks about crew being on board. If they are not on board, do they still legally count as crew?”

Harris further questioned, “Under hull insurance, and provided that the ship owner has acted diligently, cover is extended to negligence of the master or crew. Does that still apply if the captain is not on board but sitting at a desk in an office?”

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Several sources noted that a few international organizations, notably the Comite Maritime International and the International Maritime Organization, “have been very active in asking the legal profession around the world about their thoughts. The interpretations vary greatly. The legal complications of crewless vessels are actually more complicated than the technology.”

For example, if the operational, insurance and regulatory entities in two countries agree on the voyage of a crewless vessel across the ocean, a mishap or storm could drive the vessel into port or on shore of a third country that does not recognize those agreements.

“What worries insurers is legal uncertainty,” said Harris.

“If an operator did everything fine but a system went down, then most likely the designer would be responsible. But even if a designer explicitly accepted responsibility, what matters would be the flag state’s law in international waters and the local state’s law in territorial waters.


“We see the way ahead for this technology as local and short-sea operations. The law has to catch up with the technology, and it is showing no signs of doing so.”

Thomas M. Boudreau, head of specialty insurance, The Hartford, suggested that remote ferry operations could be the most appropriate use: “They travel fixed routes, all within one country’s waters.”

There could also be environmental and operational benefits from using battery power rather than conventional fuels.

“In terms of underwriting, the burden would shift to the manufacturer and designer of the operating systems,” Boudreau added.

It may just be, he suggested, that crewless ships are merely replacing old risks with new ones. Crews can deal with small repairs, fires or leaks at sea, but small conditions such as those can go unchecked and endanger the whole ship and cargo.

“The cyber risk is also concerning. The vessel may be safe from physical piracy, but what about hacking?” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]