With Autonomous Cars, Who Buys the Insurance?

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Because the whole concept of car insurance is based on human error, autonomous vehicle technology raises a host of liability questions. If the car itself is at fault in the event of a crash, should the manufacturer be held responsible? And what about the passenger? How will they be covered while riding in a self-driving car?

Trov Inc., a startup based in Danville, California, will begin to provide some answers to that last question. The company told the Wall Street Journal this week that it will be working with Waymo LLC, the autonomous vehicle unit of Google-parent Alphabet Inc., to insure riders for lost and damaged property and any medical expenses related to their trip. Passengers won’t have to pay separately, Trov CEO Scott Walchek told the WSJ, and won’t necessarily know that the company is insuring them — the coverage will come folded in with each ride.

As Gizmodo points out, the deal is an important first step in an emerging marketplace: “Without a deal like this, it’s possible that riders in autonomous vehicles would need to have personal robo-car insurance similar to renter’s insurance, providing coverage even when they’re riding in a vehicle they don’t own.”

As NPR has covered, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the other aspects of coverage will work — particularly when something goes awry and the technology is at fault. Bearing the full cost of insuring each vehicle could create a huge, long-term expense for manufacturers. That could create disincentives for a technology that may ultimately create safer roads.

Another question that remains to be seen: how regulators will deal with driverless tech. As Next City has covered, cities from Dubai to Palo Alto and Pittsburgh are in various stages of testing autonomous vehicle fleets — and tweaking local laws in the process. At this stage, however, city leaders are often unsure what requires their action, and what should be handled by state or federal regulators, according to research from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

But Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has outlined several ideas. As Uber and Ford have tested their technology on Pittsburgh streets, Peduto has been formulating a list of ethical issues manufacturers should consider. Companies should consider sharing their data with host cities, he has said, allow a competitive, open market and implement the technology in a way that complements public transit.

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