Commercial Auto

Commercial Auto: A One-Way Street?

Once the darling of the P&C world, commercial auto is now its problem child. Faced with escalating losses, insurers have no choice but to continue to raise rates and write smarter.
By: | April 7, 2017 • 5 min read

American road safety had been on an upward trajectory for decades. But in the last five years that trend has gone into reverse — with disastrous consequences for commercial auto insurers.

The U.S. commercial auto insurance industry registered its fifth consecutive year in the red in 2015 with a combined ratio of 108.5. In spite of insurers’ efforts to improve underwriting performance, primarily by raising rates, 2016 will almost certainly go down as another loss year.

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Indeed, while risk management strides are reducing loss experience in virtually all lines, commercial auto is seeing an uptick in both loss frequency and loss severity.

Economic recovery and low fuel prices have led to increasing road congestion, as well as a shortage and higher turnover of commercial drivers, diminishing driver quality. Worse still, the use of smartphones behind the wheel has caused a spike in road traffic accidents, with the National Safety Council estimating that around 25 percent of all crashes are caused by drivers talking or texting. Medical costs are rising, and plaintiff lawyers smell the blood of commercial fleet owners — flocking to the sector and driving liability payouts up to catastrophic sums.

“This confluence of factors came together pretty quickly and caused an abrupt and stark deterioration in results for insurers,” said Jerry Theodorou, vice president, insurance research at Conning.

Jerry Theodorou, vice president, insurance research, Conning

He believes complacency crept into the commercial auto market following excellent results through the 2000s. But in 2011, results suddenly deteriorated, “and commercial auto has been the problem child of P&C ever since,” he said.

“The market is not collecting enough premium to cover the large number of severity losses,” said Jennifer Rowe, who runs Marsh’s Atlanta casualty placement hub, home of the broker’s transportation center of excellence.

“Many markets are paying for a historical soft rate environment where capacity exceeded demand, and underwriters were continuously lowering rates to retain business or earn new business while ignoring early signs of adverse claim development.”

A.M. Best Senior Financial Analyst David Blades pointed out that quarter-on-quarter rate increases have been the norm since Q2 2011, but even these consistent rate hikes have not kept pace with escalating claims costs.

“A lot of big public insurers — solid underwriters — are taking a step back to re-evaluate the type of risks they write in their commercial auto books,” he said.

Indeed, the sector has already seen some major names run for the turnstiles, with trucking noted as a particular problem area. Zurich pulled out of the primary market, while in the excess space, Lexington withdrew and AIG cut capacity, raised attachment points and increased pricing.

“All [insurers] have recently adjusted their pricing models upward,” said Rowe. They think they are approaching the “right” levels but are not 100 percent sure, he said. Confidence is undermined to a degree by the long-tail, recurring and potentially escalating cost of liability claims.

Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance’s vice president of casualty, Bill Smyth, for example, said that having entered the excess trucking auto liability market in 2013, his firm’s book is “too green” to know how profitable it is.

On an excess basis, Rowe predicts rates will remain unsettled at best. Additional rate pressure “will be the new norm in lead and buffer layers for the next year,” she said, noting capacity remains limited, primarily for larger transportation risks (1,000-plus units). However, she is seeing more stability now in the primary markets, which have consistently raised prices and retention layers over the past few years.

Selectivity and Sensitivity

According to Conning’s recent report “Commercial Automobile Insurance: Fix Me, Please,” there is a wide performance gap between commercial auto insurers, with the top quintile consistently outperforming on profit by around 20 points, while demonstrating superior loss and expense ratios.

But why are some insurers able to profit in this line, while others wither and die? Consensus is the convergence of risk selection and analytics.

“Companies are refining their appetites in terms of the risks they want to write,” said Blades. Some companies will drop coverage for certain risks, while others will step away from the line altogether.

“We believe this is a cyclical deterioration and results will improve with insurer corrective actions — though it is taking longer than it should.” — Jerry Theodorou, vice president, insurance research, Conning

But knowing which risks to write, which to avoid and how to accurately price them is impossible without thorough loss analysis.

“Top quintile companies are much more aggressive users and collectors of data,” said Theodorou. From insurers’ own loss data to the driver records and loss histories of insured firms, Department of Transportation statistics and — increasingly — tools such as telematics, “there is now much more focus on rate adequacy and rating precision according to market segment,” Theorodou said.

David Blades, senior financial analyst, A.M. Best

Smyth believes that in the lower end of the trucking market, where there is still capacity and rates have not corrected as much, carriers tend to rely heavily on Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores to rate risk. “I’d rather look at the customer’s own data than government data, but many carriers in that world have a commercial auto unit rate, and deviate based on how well a customer performs on CSA,” he said.

“I don’t see the U.S. tort system slowing down, and truckers’ cargo rates aren’t going to allow them to absorb a 10 percent increase in insurance costs, so something has to give,” Smyth added. “In the future, the commercial auto market will have to be more technical and data intensive — with fewer players pricing each customer more carefully.”

For insureds — for whom tight margins are making this a bad time for rising insurance costs — this does present an opportunity to take destiny into their own hands by proving their risk management savvy: demonstrating improved route planning or investing in telematics, dashboard cameras and other technology to encourage and record better driver behavior. Still, some auto risks are unavoidable.

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“I know most of our customers are very serious about safety, how they hire people and planning their routes to avoid congested areas, but you can’t avoid New York or Chicago if that’s where the goods are heading, and it’s impossible to control other road users,” said Smyth.

Ultimately, both insurer and insured must get a better grip on risk analysis if the sector is to reverse the alarming spike in accidents while bringing profitability back to insurers.

However, industry sources are optimistic that better times are around the corner. “With better risk selection and more rate increases, we should see results improve over time,” said Blades, while Theodorou also predicted profits would return in line with more disciplined underwriting.

“We believe this is a cyclical deterioration and results will improve with insurer corrective actions — though it is taking longer than it should,” he said. “Commercial auto is still an important line of business for insurers that can operate in the new pricing environment.” &

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Property

Insurers Take to the Skies

This year’s hurricane season sees the use of drones and other aerial intelligence gathering systems as insurers seek to estimate claims costs.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 6 min read

For Southern communities, current recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey will recall the painful devastation of 2005, when Katrina and Wilma struck. But those who look skyward will notice one conspicuous difference this time around: drones.

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Much has changed since Katrina and Wilma, both economically and technologically. The insurance industry evolved as well. Drones and other visual intelligence systems (VIS) are set to play an increasing role in loss assessment, claims handling and underwriting.

Farmers Insurance, which announced in August it launched a fleet of drones to enhance weather-related property damage claim assessment, confirmed it deployed its fleet in the aftermath of Harvey.

“The pent-up demand for drones, particularly from a claims-processing standpoint, has been accumulating for almost two years now,” said George Mathew, CEO of Kespry, Farmers’ drone and aerial intelligence platform provider partner.

“The current wind and hail damage season that we are entering is when many of the insurance carriers are switching from proof of concept work to full production rollout.”

 According to Mathew, Farmers’ fleet focused on wind damage in and around Corpus Christi, Texas, at the time of this writing. “Additional work is already underway in the greater Houston area and will expand in the coming weeks and months,” he added.

No doubt other carriers have fleets in the air. AIG, for example, occupied the forefront of VIS since winning its drone operation license in 2015. It deployed drones to inspections sites in the U.S. and abroad, including stadiums, hotels, office buildings, private homes, construction sites and energy plants.

Claims Response

At present, insurers are primarily using VIS for CAT loss assessment. After a catastrophe, access is often prohibited or impossible. Drones allow access for assessing damage over potentially vast areas in a more cost-effective and time-sensitive manner than sending human inspectors with clipboards and cameras.

“Drones improve risk analysis by providing a more efficient alternative to capturing aerial photos from a sky-view. They allow insurers to rapidly assess the scope of damages and provide access that may not otherwise be available,” explained Chris Luck, national practice leader of Advocacy at JLT Specialty USA.

“The pent-up demand for drones, particularly from a claims-processing standpoint, has been accumulating for almost two years now.” — George Mathew, CEO, Kespry

“In our experience, competitive advantage is gained mostly by claims departments and third-party administrators. Having the capability to provide exact measurements and details from photos taken by drones allows insurers to expedite the claim processing time,” he added.

Indeed, as tech becomes more disruptive, insurers will increasingly seek to take advantage of VIS technologies to help them provide faster, more accurate and more efficient insurance solutions.

Duncan Ellis, U.S. property practice leader, Marsh

One way Farmers is differentiating its drone program is by employing its own FAA-licensed drone operators, who are also Farmers-trained claim representatives.

Keith Daly, E.V.P. and chief claims officer for Farmers Insurance, said when launching the program that this sets Farmers apart from most carriers, who typically engage third-party drone pilots to conduct evaluations.

“In the end, it’s all about the experience for the policyholder who has their claim adjudicated in the most expeditious manner possible,” said Mathew.

“The technology should simply work and just melt away into the background. That’s why we don’t just focus on building an industrial-grade drone, but a complete aerial intelligence platform for — in this case — claims management.”

Insurance Applications

Duncan Ellis, U.S. property practice leader at Marsh, believes that, while currently employed primarily to assess catastrophic damage, VIS will increasingly be employed to inspect standard property damage claims.

However, he admitted that at this stage they are better at identifying binary factors such as the area affected by a peril rather than complex assessments, since VIS cannot look inside structures nor assess their structural integrity.

“If a chemical plant suffers an explosion, it might be difficult to say whether the plant is fully or partially out of operation, for example, which would affect a business interruption claim dramatically.

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“But for simpler assessments, such as identifying how many houses or industrial units have been destroyed by a tornado, or how many rental cars in a lot have suffered hail damage from a storm, a VIS drone could do this easily, and the insurer can calculate its estimated losses from there,” he said.

In addition,VIS possess powerful applications for pre-loss risk assessment and underwriting. The high-end drones used by insurers can capture not just visual images, but mapping heat, moisture or 3D topography, among other variables.

This has clear applications in the assessment and completion of claims, but also in potentially mitigating risk before an event happens, and pricing insurance accordingly.

“VIS and drones will play an increasing underwriting support role as they can help underwriters get a better idea of the risk — a picture tells a thousand words and is so much better than a report,” said Ellis.

VIS images allow underwriters to see risks in real time, and to visually spot risk factors that could get overlooked using traditional checks or even mature visual technologies like satellites. For example, VIS could map thermal hotspots that could signal danger or poor maintenance at a chemical plant.

Chris Luck, national practice leader of Advocacy, JLT Specialty USA

“Risk and underwriting are very natural adjacencies, especially when high risk/high value policies are being underwritten,” said Mathew.

“We are in a transformational moment in insurance where claims processing, risk management and underwriting can be reimagined with entirely new sources of data. The drone just happens to be one of most compelling of those sources.”

Ellis added that drones also could be employed to monitor supplies in the marine, agriculture or oil sectors, for example, to ensure shipments, inventories and supply chains are running uninterrupted.

“However, we’re still mainly seeing insurers using VIS drones for loss assessment and estimates, and it’s not even clear how extensively they are using drones for that purpose at this point,” he noted.

“Insurers are experimenting with this technology, but given that some of the laws around drone use are still developing and restrictions are often placed on using drones [after] a CAT event, the extent to which VIS is being used is not made overly public.”

Drone inspections could raise liability risks of their own, particularly if undertaken in busy spaces in which they could cause human injury.

Privacy issues also are a potential stumbling block, so insurers are dipping their toes into the water carefully.

Risk Improvement

There is no doubt, however, that VIS use will increase among insurers.

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“Although our clients do not have tremendous experience utilizing drones, this technology is beneficial in many ways, from providing security monitoring of their perimeter to loss control inspections of areas that would otherwise require more costly inspections using heavy equipment or climbers,” said Luck.

In other words, drones could help insurance buyers spot weaknesses, mitigate risk and ultimately win more favorable coverage from their insurers.

“Some risks will see pricing and coverage improvements because the information and data provided by drones will put underwriters at ease and reduce uncertainty,” said Ellis.

The flip-side, he noted, is that there will be fewer places to hide for companies with poor risk management that may have been benefiting from underwriters not being able to access the full picture.

Either way, drones will increasingly help insurers differentiate good risks from bad. In time, they may also help insurance buyers differentiate between carriers, too. &

Antony Ireland is a London-based financial journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]