Volvo’s liability promise for autonomous mode may cut out insurance companies and independent repair shops

Volvo has recently stated that they will accept full liability for accidents that happen while the car drives in fully autonomous mode. This takes the heat away from the discussion about liability issues for self-driving cars. But it also has side effects that strengthen the business model of the auto maker: By accepting full liability the auto maker in effect shoulders the liability not only for all defects of the software (which no auto maker can evade anyhow) but also for all other accidents that may occur in autonomous mode. Some accidents can not be prevented: Obstacles may suddenly appear on the way (animals, pedestrians, other objects) and make an accident unavoidable. Defects of the roadway, certain weather conditions, and certain questionable behaviors of other traffic participants may lead to accidents that even the best software can not prevent.

Therefore the acceptance of full liability contains both a promise regarding the quality of the software and an insurance element: Volvo must either add the total, non-zero, lifetime risk of driving in autonomous mode to the purchase price of their self-driving cars. This could have the disadvantage of making their cars more expensive. Or they could duplicate the insurance industry’s business model and request that their customers subscribe to a (low) supplementary insurance policy. The latter has the advantage that risk profiles – total number of miles driven per year and the area where the cars are driven (urban, country, highway) can be taken into account. But the insurance industry would surely mobilize against the latter approach and decry it as anti-competitive.

In the following we therefore examine the first case where Volvo decides to include the cost of insurance as a hidden element in the purchase price in more detail: It is hard to provide a good estimate of the risks but there are some numbers we can build from: In 2012 US insurance expenditures for a car had an average value of $815 per year. If we take this as a proxy for the risk of human driving, then factoring in the risk of human driving for a 12 year life expectancy of a car would increase the purchase price by $9780. How much lower will the risk of autonomous mode driving be? A representative study of more than 5000 severe accidents in the United States published by the NHTSA which was carried out between 2005 and 2007 provides some clues: The study found that human errors were the most critical factor in more than 93% of the accidents. In less severe accidents human error probably plays an even bigger, but certainly not smaller role. Other factors were: Technical failures: 2.0%, road conditions: 1.8%, atmospheric conditions (including glare): 0.6%. If we assume that autonomous vehicles do not add significant additional modes of error, then they should be able to reduce the number of accidents by at least a factor of 10 ( 1/(1-0.93) = 14.2). Because the vehicles drive more defensively, break earlier in critical situations, are much more consistent in their behavior in critical situations than humans (some of whom will not react at all in a critical situation, not even step on the brakes) the average damage per accident is likely to be significantly smaller than the average current damage. Therefore the costs of vehicle accidents are likely to fall even further; we estimate that autonomous vehicles have the potential of reducing accident costs by a factor between 15 and 50. This assumes that autonomous vehicles do not create major additional risks and don’t somehow cause rare but unusually enormous accidents. Under these assumptions, Volvo’s liability promise can be added into the purchase price: If we assume a reduction of damages by a factor of 15, the life-span risk (12 years) translates into 652$ of additional costs for each fully autonomous car which Volvo sells.

Accepting full liability for all accidents in autonomous mode may therefore indeed be a viable strategy for Volvo and other makers of fully autonomous vehicles. This move cuts out the insurance industry and – if copied by other auto makers – should not be a competitive disadvantage, because the risks are unlikely to differ greatly from auto maker to auto maker. In addition, auto makers might use this approach to open additional revenue streams for more risky use of vehicles where they might request additional fees – for example for heavily used fleet vehicles.

There is another side-effect of assuming liability for accidents in autonomous mode. Accidents are more likely if the cars are not maintained properly. Therefore auto makers may place more stringent requirements on maintenance, shorten maintenance intervals and require that the cars be maintained in certified repair shops only – which eliminates the business of independent repair shops. By increasing maintenance revenues, auto makers may be able to offset the costs of assuming liability for accidents.

In summary, Volvo’s shrewd move to assume liability may extend their revenue streams while cutting out insurance companies and independent repair shops.

The race for leadership in autonomous cars is on: Volvo to deploy 100 self-driving cars by 2017

2013 has been a year with a lot of buzz around self-driving cars. While Google has been mostly silent about their progress, many other players have demonstrated prototypes of  autonomous cars (including Mercedes, Nissan) and announced intentions to bring more and more autonomous features to the market.

Now Volvo Cars has announced a project to deploy 100 highly autonomous cars in the Swedish city of Gothenburg by 2017. The cars will drive without the need for human supervision on selected roads in Gothenburg (including motorways, regular surface streets etc.). In autonomous mode their speed will be limited to a maximum of 70km/h. The cars will not yet be able to drive fully autonously; they may have to return control to the driver in certain areas or traffic situations (however the car will be able to handle all short-term traffic situations without help from a driver). The cars will use 360 degree sensors including cameras, Lidar and radar. More information about the project is available in a video by Volvo.

The project is very significant because of its scope, short timeline until implementation and because it involves key partners such as the City of Gothenburg and the Swedish government (Swedish Transport Administration and Swedish Transport Agency) who may have to remove any remaining legal road blocks.

With this project the race has begun to establish autonomous vehicle technology in real-live urban settings. Much as we have predicted, the cars’ autonomous operation will be limited to a very specific region: Only selected roads in withing Gothenburg which  are carefully mapped. The cars will rely on the mobile communications to receive map updates as needed. Thus Volvo will have to build an operations center which supports the autonomous operation on a day-to-day basis and issues updates to the cars for changes, construction zones etc.

Volvo Cars has reported losses in the first half of 2013 of about 90 million USD on revenues of almost 9 billion USD; with the global economic recovery this may have improved in the second half of 2013. Nevertheless, as one of the smaller car makers,  leadership in the autonomous space may be a good strategy for survival.

It is not clear, however, whether Volvo realizes that much of the growth in this technology will come from fleets of self-driving cars operating in limited areas. If Volvo really wants to profit from the growth opportunities in this area, they will have to re-think their model structure and introduce smaller, probably even electric cars aimed at short-range fleet operations. Being owned by Geely, a Chinese automotive company, Volvo could be in an ideal position to introduce the new paradigm of autonomous mobility to China (which would greatly benefit from fleets of short-range autonomous electric vehicles for urban, pollution-free mobility).

The project shows that autonomous technology has entered a new phase where real projects are being implemented which require the cooperation of car makers, technology providers, cities and governments. The British project in Milton Keynes is another example as well as the project to rethink urban mobility in Singapore (where the French company Induct are involved with their Navia autonomous shuttle as well as MIT).

Sources: Lindholmen Science Park, Volvo

Volvo cars aims for leadership in the field of autonomous driving

At a seminar in Washington last week, Volvo executive Peter Mertens has vowed to move beyond concepts and bring driverless car technology to the customer. He emphasized that Volvo cars “aims to gain leadership in the field of autonomous driving”. He also lamented the current trend to regulate this technology on the state-level in the US and emphasized the need for a comprehensive legal framework.

Volvo cars, which is owned by the Chinese Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, has a long history of improving car safety and has participated in the EU SARTRE road train project which was completed this year.

In the wake of Nissan’s announcements last month concerning drive-by wire technology in some of their upcoming models and their (limited) self-driving Nissan ‘Leaf’ prototype the statement by Volvo cars may be another sign that the tide is turning and competition in the driverless space may start to heat up.

It will be interesting to see when the larger car manufacturers begin to communicate their autonomous vehicle strategy.

Source: Volvo Cars


Intelligent vehicle symposium showcases advances in driverless technology

Driverless technology researchers gathered at the beginning of June for the IEEE Intelligent Vehicles Symposium. With almost 200 presentations from more than 600 authors probably no aspect of this technology was left untouched.

This was not just an academic get-together: many of the papers involved major car makers (BMW, Toyota, Daimler, Renault, Volvo, Opel, Volkswagen, General Motors, Hyundai) or automotive suppliers (Delphi, Bosch).

The conference started with a reportedly captivating keynote presentation by Google’s Chris Urmson. Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain more detailed information about its content. Please contact me if you were there!! Robert Bertini (Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab) gave another keynote on the environmental issues related to intelligent transportation which took the perspective beyond technical issues towards societal and environmental impacts.

It is hard to pick out the most interesting papers. But Daimler presented a new approach for improving stereo vision using a ‘Stixel’-based approach for object recognition. They claim that they are able to reduce false positives by a factor of 8 over the state of the art while reducing the computational costs by a factor of 10.

China  also seems to be moving ahead with driverless technology. Two papers (1, 2) were presented from participants of the annual Chinese driverless vehicle competition (‘ Future Challenge of Intelligent Vehicles’) funded by their National Nature Science Foundation.

Several papers focused on pedestrian modeling and recognition. Volkswagen described their approach to systematically drive an autonomous car at the vehicle’s handling limits. DLR presented an approach to apply autonomous vehicles localization technology to trains.

The symposium was located in Alcala de Henares, Spain. It also included demonstrations of autonomous vehicle systems.