Smart Cars, Safety and Affordability: A Chicken and Egg Problem

Cars are getting smarter and safer. And yet this new breed of automobile remains inaccessible to large parts of the consumer base due to high costs. Some of these costs are a natural result of technological advancements in the automobile industry. Others however may be a product of inefficient market dynamics among car manufacturers, insurers and technology companies – which ultimately contribute to a reduced state of safety on our roads.

Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that equip cars with services like autonomous braking systems, parking assistance, and blind spot detection are growing at an exponential rate. The global ADAS market size was estimated to be around $14.15 billion in 2016. Since then, it has witnessed a high rate of growth and is expected to reach $67 billion by 2025. Not only is this good news for ADAS developers, it can also significantly increase road safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that the deployment of automatic emergency braking in most cars on the road, for instance, can prevent 28,000 crashes and 12,000 injuries by 2025.

The biggest roadblock to the easy adoption of ADAS-equipped cars remains its prohibitive cost. Lower rates of adoption not only reduce the overall safety of cars on the road, but also disproportionately affect poorer people. Unsurprisingly, a study in Maryland found that individuals at the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum have greater access to vehicle safety features leaving those at the lower end at higher risk.

A significant contributing factor to the continued high cost of automated vehicles is the high rate of car insurance. This seems rather counter intuitive. The technological evolution of safety systems reduces the risk of car crashes and other incidents. Consequently, this was expected to cause a decline in insurance premiums. And yet, costs remain high. Insurance companies have resisted the demands for lowering the cost of premiums claiming that the data about ADAS systems and their efficacy in reducing risk is just not conclusive. Moreover, the industry claims, that even if ADAS systems can cause a reduction in the number of vehicular incidents, each incident involving an automated car costs more because of the sophisticated and often delicate hardware such as sensors and cameras installed in these cars. As the executive vice president of Hanover Insurance Group puts it, “There’s no such thing as a $300 bumper anymore. It’s closer to $1,500 in repair costs nowadays.”

There is no doubt that these are legitimate concerns. An industry whose entire business model involves pricing risk can hardly be blamed for seeking more accurate data for quantifying said risk. Unfortunately, none of the actors involved in the automated vehicle industry are particularly forthcoming with their data. At a relatively nascent stage, the AV industry is still highly competitive with large parts of operations shrouded in secrecy. Car manufacturers that operate fleets of automated vehicles and no doubt gather substantial data around crash reports are loathe to share it with insurers out of fears of giving away proprietary information and losing their competitive edge. The consequence of this lack of open exchange is that AVs continue to remain expensive and perhaps improperly priced from a risk standpoint.

There are some new attempts to work around this problem. Swiss Re, for example, is developing a global ADAS risk score that encourages car manufacturers to share data with them that they in turn would use to recommend discounts to insurers. Continental AG has similarly developed a Data Monetization Platform that seemingly allows fleet operators to sell data in a secure and transparent manner to city authorities, insurers and other interested parties. These are early days so whether these initiatives will be able to overcome the insecurities around trade secrets and proprietary data remains to be seen.

It is however clear that along with the evolution of cars and technologies the insurance industry too will need to change. As a recent Harvard Business Review article points out, automated vehicles will fundamentally alter the private car insurance market by shifting car ownership from an individual-centric model to a fleet-centric one, at least in the short to medium term. This shift itself could cost auto insurers nearly $25 billion (or 1/8th of the global market) in revenue from premiums. It is imperative therefore that the insurance industry devise new innovative approaches to price the risk associated with AVs. Hopefully they can do this without further driving up costs and while making safer technologies accessible to those that need it the most.