Self-driving cars elicit a strong emotional response from people. Hardcore car enthusiasts swear they'll never give up control to machines, while safety advocates believe that the number of lives that can be saved justifies removing humans from behind the wheel.
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Autonomous tech true believers, meanwhile, envision self-driving cars leading to everything from the end of parking hassles to a complete remake of cities and streets. While no one knows what will happen, insurers have a big stake in figuring it out, and they look at the issue using cold, hard stats.
In what could be a milestone for autonomous technology, one of England's largest auto insurers, Direct Line, has started offering a 5 percent discount to Tesla owners with Autopilot-equipped cars, Reuters reported. While the discount and number of cars affected is small, the program is designed to help Direct Line learn about the habits of drivers with the semi-autonomous technology onboard.
"At present, the driver is firmly in charge so it's just like insuring other cars," Dan Freedman, head of Motor Development at Direct Line, told Reuters.
"But it does offer Direct Line a great opportunity to learn and prepare for the future," he added. And it could set a precedent for how the insurance industry handles self-driving cars.
Tesla Owners Paying Higher Premiums
Earlier this year, data revealed that some Tesla owners were paying higher-than-average premiums than drivers of other cars. CEO Elon Musk responded by calling on auto insurers to take into consideration his vehicles' active safety features. While Musk is known for his bravado, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that "vehicles crash rate dropped by almost 40 percent after Autosteer installation," which is a feature of the Autopilot suite of active safety technology.
"Crash rates across all Tesla models have fallen by 40 percent since the introduction of the Autopilot system," Daniel Pearce, a financial analyst at GlobalData, told Reuters. "However, when owners seek to insure their Tesla vehicles, this is not reflected in the pricing of premiums.
Musk declared earlier this year that Tesla would work closely with auto insurers to make sure that rates for owners of its cars are fair, and the first example of that is the Direct Line discount. In a win-win arrangement, Reuters noted that Direct Line sells insurance policies to customers introduced to it by Tesla, and Tesla provides information on the features and capabilities of its vehicles to help Direct Line set insurance prices based on standard risk factors such as age, driving experience, and claim history.
Going a step further, Tesla has even started insuring its own cars. In August, the company quietly launched a car insurance program under its own brand in Australia and Hong Kong, and expanded the program to several more countries, including the US and Canada.
Tesla is once again setting the pace in autonomous technology. "The insurance industry will gradually respond to these developments," Pearce added. Sounds like they already have.