In October 2015, almost two million viewers watched vlogger Casey Neistat ride co-pilot in a Tesla self-driving car.If you haven't seen it, watch from 09:03 - it's completely mind boggling.
Technology dreamt up in a science-fiction fantasy is now becoming a reality. In a few years, it’ll be just another car at your local dealership.
Consumer-ready and fully self-driving cars are in development, with household names such as Nissan and Ford building their own autonomous vehicles (AV).
Tesla's launching a new all-electric AV fleet in 2018, while Google and Toyota are aiming for 2020. BMW is testing 40 cars on public roads in 2017, alongside real drivers in self-driving Volvos.
But it’s Tesla and the Model S, X and the brand new Model 3 that dominated the headlines in 2016.
The ‘Autopilot’ technology in each of these vehicles assumes brake, acceleration and steering capabilities for ‘the equivalent of motorway driving’, but drivers can upgrade to "Full-Self Driving Capability’ which enables ‘self-driving in almost all circumstances".
How to drive a driverless car
AV's with Autopilot capabilities aren’t ready for you to retire from driving quite yet. That might be a surprise for most, as the common misconception is that these intelligent cars can take you along any road, while you’re hands-free and blindfolded.
Motoring journalists who’ve tested out the Tesla Autopilot were quick to spot flaws in the system - a bit scary while sat in the driving seat!
They recommend switching the AV off and taking back control when approaching traffic lights (you might see red, but the car doesn’t!), navigating streets lined with parked cars, and when street markings are obscured or absent.
Yes, the car can read too, in case you were wondering.
And, Tesla tells its drivers under no uncertain terms to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, ready to take control if the technology fails.
All Tesla’s models are now constructed with the Self-Driving Capability built-in. However, it’s collecting millions of miles of real-world driving data to inform the how the automatic driving function (ADF) system interprets the information, before activating it in public road cars.
The subsequent hazard anticipation, perception and reactive self-correction will be an exceptional advancement, but are we ready to let the machines take complete control?
These cars will use data to logically resolve moral dilemmas on the road, escape dangerous situations, minimise damage and even rationalise whether you live or die.
When the technology throws a wobbly, we can bank on Stephen King tweeting: “I told you so.” He wrote the book on vehicles gaining consciousness, after all.
We’re up for the experiment though and it’s prompted the government to take a closer look at how driving habits and accidents may change over the next few years.
Insuring driverless cars
The current UK motor vehicle insurance model is based on insuring the driver of the vehicle, rather than the vehicle itself. That’s going to cause serious claims confusion when it’s the car making decisions for you.
Naturally, you shift emphasis onto the manufacturer. It should protect drivers of its cars with liability insurance.
In practice, making those changes to the law isn’t that straightforward, namely because product liability insurance is an optional cover.
The UK government got in gear and launched a driverless cars consultation in 2015, and BLM Law, which represents a number of insurers, told the government straight up: "Current product liability law and insurance practice have inherent restrictions which would not easily enable the underlying policy objectives in respect of motor accidents to be met."
There are a whole host of other problems, too. For example, claims would only be allowed within the first 10 years of the car’s life, and damage to the car which is caused by the car wouldn’t count. Nightmare.
The results of the consultation, published in January 2016, recognised the warning signs and suggested a shift in the current car insurance legislation. The changes are designed to protect disengaged drivers and passengers, plus the victims involved in a collision with a self-driving car.
New laws looking out for AV drivers
Financially, it may not out of the question to own an AV. Honda’s model is reportedly hitting the market at a competitive £17,000 ($20,000), for example, so this information might handy the next time you go car shopping.
The headline changes to the compulsory motor insurance framework are a bit juicy in places, believe it or not:
The insurer will cover both the driver’s use of the vehicle and the AV technology.
You’re covered as you’re driving, and when the technology is activated.
If you crash while the ADF system was active, the innocent victims inside and outside of the vehicle could make a claim and the insurer would pay compensation.
Your insurer could turn you away if you modify the car without authorisation OR if you don’t install the software updates when prompted (remember those IOS ones we all ignore?).
On the flipside, if the driverless car is hacked in a cyber-attack you’ll still receive compensation because that’s a mod you didn’t make.
If the manufacturer is at fault, the insurer still pays compensation but recovers the money from the car firm.
Don’t worry about a lengthy claims process either - it’s in their commercial interest to be prompt and helpful, even if your claim goes to court. They won’t want insurers to discontinue AV car insurance products because that puts the brakes on driverless car sales!
If you don’t have an AV, the laws for your car insurance will not change. Carry on as normal (and keep comparing car insurance) until you’re told otherwise.