Driverless cars have generated a great deal of attention among insurers, which is readily understandable given their potential impact on auto insurers’ business models.  The potential impact of autonomous technologies on commercial vehicles (and the companies that insure them) has not received as much attention, although that impact is likely to be just as great for commercial insurers as it is on the personal lines market.

Safety and liability are important concerns for owners of commercial vehicles, particularly in sectors such as long-haul trucking.   There are more trucks on the road than ever before, with U.S. trucks hauling almost 10 billion tons of freight in 2014, according to the American Trucking Associations.   Furthermore, trucking companies are finding it difficult to attract and retain drivers, with driver shortages cropping up in many areas.

In May 2014, Daimler showcased its “Freightliner” truck in Nevada, featuring greatly enhanced safety features such as lane control and automatic braking.  Video released by Daimler showed the driver working on his iPad while “driving” the truck.  While no one envisions a truly driverless truck – at least not for the foreseeable future — there is speculation that new technology could allow trucks to operate autonomously during long highway drives, with drivers resting or catching up on paperwork.  When trucks enter congested areas, the driver would then take over and completes pickups and deliveries.

This scenario, of course, opens up numerous issues for commercial insurers.   Over the medium term, the anticipated reduction in accidents from the introduction of autonomous technologies should lead to lower claims payouts, but also to lower premiums from fleet owners.  Over the longer term, however, vehicle manufacturers, fleet owners and insurers will need to address difficult questions of ultimate liability.  If a truck operating in autonomous mode is involved in an accident, does the fault lie with the driver, the truck owner, or with the vehicle manufacturer?  To what extent would the vehicle manufacturer seek to blame the provider of the technology used to allow the vehicle to run autonomously?

The benefits from autonomous technology – in terms of safety and productivity – are too great for commercial fleet operators to ignore.  Commercial P&C insurers should keep pace with these technological developments and make sure they have needed products and solutions available as this market continues its rapid evolution.

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