Brave New World

Self-driving cars look set to shake up the insurance industry. Professors Martin Mullins and Finbarr Murphy explain.

It’s a question of relative speed. Technology just motors ahead, be it nanotechnology or automated vehicles, and governance struggles to keep pace.

This is true of regulation, legal frameworks, applied ethics and indeed liability regimes. The Emerging Risk Group, based in the Department of Accounting and Finance within the Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick works on spanning the gap between emerging technologies and their attendant regulatory and liability requirements. Working closely with our colleagues in the School of Law, UL’s software scientists in Lero (the Irish software research centre), and material scientists at the Bernal Institute, it’s a truly interdisciplinary effort that has ensured UL’s involvement in five EU H2020 funded projects over the last few years.

Our last two projects are really fascinating and put us in the vanguard of development in one of the most disruptive and valuable technological revolutions taking place: Automated vehicles, a technology that means that today’s toddlers might never drive a car and implies a complete change in our relationship with the automobile. It will also save millions of lives globally.

The insurance industry is paying close attention to developments in this field as the motor insurance business in Europe is worth some €130 billion per annum and is, in all likelihood, going to be completely transformed over the next 10 to 20 years.

If a semi-automatic car detects you are driving irresponsibly, should it call the police and report you?

The two EU Horizon 2020 projects we are involved with are the Horizon 2020-funded Cloud-LSVA, and VI-DAS. The former is located within the ICT research calls and is
a highly technical enterprise devoted to the problem of just how we manage the massive quantities of data automated vehicles are going to generate. VI-DAS takes a more holistic view of the questions that surround this technology. The consortia, led by the Spanish research group, Vicomtech, includes amongst others, IBM, Intel, TomTom, Valeo and Honda Research. VI-DAS posits the notion of 720 degrees of surveillance that is both within the car or truck and taking in the outside environment. Cameras within the vehicle will gather information about the driver and his or her state of readiness to take control of the vehicle. This is important because, for the next decade or so given the probable state of digital infrastructure cars will, on occasion, hand back the control of the vehicle to the driver.

There is a myriad of ethical and legal dilemmas facing this new technology. In the future, cars will be able to provide a very accurate picture of a driver’s behaviour behind the wheel. One question that immediately arises is who should have access to this data. For example, should your insurance company be able to tap into data and price your risk accordingly? Similar issues arise with law enforcement. One of the ethical questions we work through with students is – if a semi-automatic car detects you are driving irresponsibly should it call the police and report you?

Our core message is one that speaks to the sustainable roll-out of any new technology. Our target audience has been the EU Commission, auto manufacturers and major research institutions across Europe. Working closely with insurers such as XL Catlin and the Lloyd’s market, we provide a bridge between scientists and technologists and the insurance underwriters who may assume the risks inherent in their innovations. The pitch is pretty simple: ‘If you can’t insure it, you can’t do it – allow us to help you communicate with the insurance industry.’

Dr Martin Mullins is currently working on a number of insurance related research projects, including four EU Commission funded projects in the area of emerging technologies and risk transfer. Dr Mullins works closely with Lloyd’s of London and XL Catlin on emerging risk and his work also encompasses the area of applied ethics as it pertains to new technologies.

Dr Finbarr Murphy is a Principal Investigator in three European Commission H2020 research projects, two in the area of autonomous vehicle development and one in Nanotechnology Risk. His research uses machine-learning techniques to estimate the changing risk profile produced by emerging technologies. He is also a member of the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council (ERTRAC) and is also a Fulbright Scholar.

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