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.