Risk Insider: Martin Frappolli
The Future of Motoring
The advent of driverless cars on demand, such as an autonomous Uber, might reduce the total number of cars on the road by 90 percent. Take that statistic and imagine that you are Ford, Toyota, CarMax or Midas. You have a big chunk of a big market. What happens to your financial future if the market shrinks by 90 percent?
However, even as the car count falls, the total number of miles driven may actually increase. When human error is removed from motoring, accidents are eliminated and traffic jams minimized with the choreography of movement by autonomous vehicles. Passengers may willingly accept longer journeys and commutes because the ride is smooth, stress-free and presents no demand to stay engaged with the road.
How many miles do you put on your car annually? The average American drives less than 15,000 miles each year; our cars are idle most of the time. The main reason that autonomous cars on demand will permit such a reduction in car count is that autonomous vehicles will be in much more frequent use.
A car will pick you up and take you to work, then pick up some children to go to school, then take some seniors to the mall, then deliver some packages for Amazon.
By some estimates, the future driverless Lyft car or ZipCar will cover ground at a rate approaching 300,000 miles each year. Without some dramatic advance in the durability of vehicle engines and suspension parts, an autonomous on-demand car will be used up in less than a year.
What is the downstream implication for car insurers? At first blush, it looked grim.
So for carmakers, the total product demand may not change much at all. One might expect, though, that the shell of the car — doors, hood, trunk — might be reclaimed and outfitted with new power trains and suspensions, and put back on the road.
What is the downstream implication for car insurers? At first blush, it looked grim. Auto insurance is, after all, primarily about financial compensation for damage resulting from human error. When you remove human error, the accident rate should plummet. When you reduce the car count by 90 percent, it would seem that the total market size also shrinks dramatically.
However, if the annual miles for each vehicle is 300,000 instead of 15,000, the exposure is dramatically larger. And for the transition period when the roads will be shared by cars with human operators and autonomous cars (whether owned individually or part of an on-demand fleet), collisions won’t entirely vanish.
In the long run, it’s all very promising for human safety, convenience and for the environment; cars can be made lighter and smaller when there is no need to make them crash-proof. Established carmakers may have time to adjust as we move from an ownership model to an on-demand streaming model, much as consumers have already done with music and movies.
But at some future point, human error will be eliminated from motoring. We will look back on the first 125 years of the automobile as a brutal and primitive time, and wonder how we endured the carnage inflicted by human operators.
Auto insurers need to prepare to transition to that future. Accidents will be rare, and it’s probable that autos will be owned less by individuals and more by commercial firms operating fleets of autonomous cars on demand.
Not only will exposures be dramatically different, but all the data and skills we now use to underwrite auto will be obsolete. No crystal ball has a perfect vision of this future, but every auto insurer should be studying and planning for it.