Autonomous Vehicles and Human Beings
Joe Herbers

Autonomous Vehicles and Human Beings

So much has been written about autonomous self-driving cars (automated vehicles or AV) and all of it is simply fascinating. The technology is evolving quickly and the research in this field will affect each and every one of us in unforeseen ways. Looking back just 7-8 years ago, smartphones were being adopted by the masses. My, how our lives have changed – generally for the better, but with some definite downsides.

How will our lives look 10 years from now with substantial numbers of AVs on the street?  

For years, auto manufacturers have been selling us cars based on performance, safety and the personal relationship we have with our vehicle. This focus will necessarily change, and virtually overnight, when cars become more like robots and safety is paramount to performance and convenience. The public will become accustomed to a chauffeur mentality. We will be able to get from Point A to Point B without thinking about the best route, the time it will take or road conditions. 

I recall a time in the early 80s when Chrysler was selling basic metal boxes on four wheels (i.e., K cars). They sold like hotcakes because the market changed overnight when OPEC put oil production quotas into place and gasoline prices shot up dramatically. Consumers needed vehicles that had better gas mileage, and they willingly traded in their old behemoth gas guzzlers for something more practical. 

What’s going on with driverless cars is different, but not entirely. The demand for AVs may be driven by cost savings, convenience and a complete change in the way the public views transportation in general. In urban environments, there are numerous alternatives to driving to work. But in small cities and rural areas, options are limited. 

Interestingly, driverless cars may perform best in uncrowded venues outside of cities. In urban areas, the challenges are more than I can count. But consider:

  • Congestion in urban areas and algorithms that dictate that autonomous vehicles obey traffic laws may result in massive traffic jams. Consider the impact of pedestrians and bicyclists that share city crosswalks and roadways. Do you think human beings will simply wait to allow a driverless car to turn through an intersection? Or will they recognize the car for what it is and assume it must stop or yield to them before crossing?

  • What will keep someone from driving aggressively around autonomous vehicles because they know the software inside the vehicle will tell the car to yield to a potential obstruction? 

In the real world, human beings adjust their behavior when dealing with new technologies and safety features in their cars. Consider the anti-lock brakes (ABS) experience of the 80s and 90s. The reduction in crashes for vehicles equipped with ABS wasn’t nearly as remarkable as predicted. Drivers felt more comfortable operating their vehicles at higher speeds in more hazardous conditions because they knew they were equipped with this safety feature. Following the risk compensation theory, drivers adapted to the safety benefit by driving more aggressively.

Human nature being what it is, I suspect something very comparable will happen when the driving population is sharing the road with autonomous vehicles. 

Consider another very real element of human nature – putting things off until the last minute. We see drivers in a hurry at all hours of the day and night. The algorithms in a self-driving car will likely not respond to a person’s instruction to “Speed it up!” Running errands around town will take longer because each segment of the day’s driving will most certainly take longer.  

Individuals will need to plan ahead to avoid being late for appointments, meetings, school, church or the hundreds of other commitments we make to be somewhere at a given point in time. We all have friends and family that are chronically late, and this will only get worse if they are traveling via self-driving car. 

There is little doubt that autonomous vehicles will significantly reduce the number of accidents and injuries associated with car crashes. What concerns me most are the unintended consequences of these new technologies and how they will change future human behavior. More time will be spent in the car, and we will be unencumbered during that time… which means more time for us all to check our e-mails and social media postings.

Joe Herbers is Pinnacle’s Managing Principal and a Consulting Actuary with over 30 years’ experience. His practice focuses on providing loss reserving and funding studies for a wide variety of entities – both traditional insurers and alternative markets. Joe’s specialties include policyholder-owned group captives, large-deductible and/or self-insured entities, lawyers’ professional liability carriers, Florida property writers and non-standard auto writers in the state of Illinois. Joe is an Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society, a Member of the American Academy of Actuaries and a Chartered Enterprise Risk Analyst. He served as long-time member and Chair of the American Academy of Actuaries Committee on Property Liability Financial Reporting (COPLFR) as well as several other professional committees. He is a regular speaker at industry events.

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