Being an insurance agent, we’re often asked if car insurance will be the next industry to suffer the challenges presented by technology, specifically the advancement of self-driving cars. Perhaps we experienced a brief concern, but as time goes on it is becoming more apparent that autonomous vehicles aren’t just around the corner. And, when they do become part of the mainstream our auto insurance policies will be written to cover dangers specific to them.

driverless car 1950s image

1950’s illustration depicting early enchantment with the concept of driverless cars.

Technology companies have been toying with driver-less cars since they became a hot topic in the 2008 Pentagon’s “urban challenge.” The challenge was won by a team of tech engineers from Carnegie Mellon who created a self-driving Chevy Tahoe which navigated an obstacle course while obeying California traffic laws.

While self-driving cars were also considered as a fuel-economy solution, it’s more likely the technological moment was ripe for innovation and what could be more imaginative than a driver-less car? In the meantime, many major manufacturers and tech companies jumped on board with the prognostications that autonomous vehicles were just around the corner. It has become apparent that around the corner is very far away.

Let’s shed a little light on the history of self-driving cars, and you’ll see why the promise of “just around the corner” has faded.

Audi unveiled a self-driving vehicle in 2013 at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, announcing it would soon to be available to the public. Audi claimed their autonomous car would handle highway driving until it didn’t, then a passenger had to take control within seconds.

Then there is Elon Musk who promises every year that a completely capable self-driving car was just a year away. Grant you his Telsa Model 3 EV is everything he promised, but even that was fraught with manufacturing challenges that delayed its introduction.

Uber driverless taxi photo

Uber testing a driverless taxi on the streets of Pittsburg.

Though EV’s are the next vehicle evolution, they are overshadowed by Star Wars appeal of driverless cars. The quest of becoming an autonomous-vehicle leader fuels hype-mongers predictions of “just around the corner.” The race to become the first to bring driverless vehicles to the mass market has propelled Apple, Uber, and Google, to name a few, to spend tens of millions on research development. Marketing opportunities alone are worth the effort, reaping billions in publicity of the kind that can’t be bought with any advertising budget.

Even traditional auto manufacturers like General Motors and Ford are scrambling to brand themselves with autonomous-vehicle credibility in hopes of obtaining a sliver of the stock-market favor experienced by Tesla, Apple, and Google.

So what is keeping the driverless car off our roads?

Autonomous vehicles can’t handle inclement weather. They can’t reliably tell the difference between a plastic bag blowing across the road from a child on a bicycle and won’t be able to soon. Identification scenarios rely on the autonomous vehicles’ sensors properly interpreting environment inputs, and reliable identification of the car’s surroundings has proven difficult.

Graphic of sensors on autonomous car

Common sensors used to navigate an autonomous car.

Here are three common sensors used to navigate an autonomous car. These sensors collaborate to detect and describe objects around the vehicle. Together they create a virtual 3D map allowing the car to avoid obstacles as it moves.

Lidar
Lidar these are located on top of the car rotating 360 degrees with 150,000 laser pulses per second. The Lidar creates a 3-D map of the car’s surroundings.

Radar
Radar sensors are located on the corners of each bumper and use radio waves to identify objects up to about 600 feet away.

Camera
A wide angled lens is located on the front and sides and a fisheye lens on the rear. These capture high-resolution images of the car’s environment.

Reliable identification of the car’s surroundings has proven difficult.

graphic of driverless car with soda canCurved objects laying on the road
Radio waves that bounce off low objects like soda can bottoms can skew data from radar sensors with false amplification. This skewed data makes the car think it is approaching larger objects and could erroneously trigger emergency mechanisms like sudden swerving or braking.

Unidentifiable shapes
Radar sensors work by matching an object’s outline to a catalog of forms stored in the vehicle operating system memory. Objects with irregular shapes may confuse radar, yield inaccurate readings, and possibly cause the car to swerve or brake needlessly.

Driverless car and snake imageUndetected objects
Objects that are low to the ground, debris like branches or creatures like snakes, can easily fail to register with cameras or lidar sensors placed on top of the car. Missed objects can potentially damage the vehicle or become roadkill.

Darkness
Lidar and radar are unaffected by night, but cameras have difficulty capturing the environment in low visibility conditions, especially after sundown.

Bumpy roads
The Lidar on top of the car calibrates thousands of laser pulses per second to creates a 3-D map of the car’s surroundings. Driving on uneven surfaces eventually compromises the calibration causing excessive wear on the ball-bearings that stabilize the sensor. The more often a vehicle is driven on bumpy roads, the more frequently the lidar sensor will need to be replaced.

Driverless car on bumpy road imageInsects
When bugs collide with the lidar sensors or camera lenses while driving, they leave smudges causing an inaccurate reading. These sensors require frequent cleaning to maintain peak functionality.

Snow
Like insects, snow is a nuisance to cameras. Snowflakes reduce long-range visibility and snow that accumulates on or near lenses can make a camera useless. Even worse, removal of frost on a spherical lidar sensor is impossible with a flat ice scraper. Some kind of defrost method would have to be added for vehicles driven in snow belt regions.

Resolving these challenges is the priority for many independent researchers, startups and well-funded players like Google, Uber, and the General Motors Cruise unit. Even when sensor technology becomes dependable, there remains the question and creation of an industry standard for what sensors or backup mechanisms driverless cars must have if primary sensors fail.

image of self-driving pizza delivery car

Ford self-driving research vehicle delivering pizza.

Test tracks for these efforts can be found on the streets of cities like suburban Phoenix, Silicon Valley, and Pittsburgh, to name a few. The tests are conducted both on obstacle-free closed courses without human drivers and on public roadways with human “safety operator” backups.

Challenges are not limited to the technology. Federal and state are trying to determine how to oversee the technology best to ensure safety while also encouraging its development.

Driverless cars have gone beyond the realm of science fiction, but predictions about their availability for the mass market should be tempered with reality. Some might even question why we need autonomous vehicles. If you enjoyed this article you might like our post about Uber’s Flying Taxis.

As for insuring driver-less cars, we know without question insurance companies are working on policies that will cover any unexpected or expected accident. We understand however flawed humans may be, but they’re still the best drivers on the road.

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