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David WilliamsManaging Director, Underwriting & Technical Services

July 29, 2019

Bristol: an innovative hub of autonomous vehicle technology

From sci-fi to reality, autonomous vehicles have already made their way onto our city streets. With many promises in tow: reducing accidents and road deaths, making mobility more inclusive and accessible, unclogging city streets and even freeing up new real estate by eliminating parking. However, driverless vehicles also pose a number of new challenges, including the question of insurance for vehicles controlled by algorithms. To anticipate these benefits and challenges, AXA has partnered with the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the United Kingdom, as researchers there seek to broaden our understanding of driverless technology to build a safer, cleaner and more livable city of the future.

Bristol, where I was born and raised, has a long history of exploration and business, dating back to the Merchant Venturers of the 13th century. That deep-seeded tradition led to the city’s stellar academic institutions, as well as its current status as a hot bed for technology and innovation. Indeed, Bristol was named Britain’s leading smart city in the UK Smart Cities Index 2017.

Moreover, Bristol is also the ideal spot for developing and testing autonomous vehicles. Crossing the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the rolling hills of the English countryside give way to the spectacular limestone cliffs that line the city along the River Avon. This rugged blend of rural, urban and downtown environments allows researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory – the largest robotics lab of its kind in the UK – to study driverless technology in a variety of real-world settings.

Prof. Tony Pipe

Deputy Director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory

Bristol has several attractive qualities for conducting a great deal of the testing we are undertaking, including rapid transitions between rural to semi-rural to extra-urban to urban to city center traffic flows and features.

One of those realities is traffic: congestion in Bristol is simply a nightmare. As a diehard Bristol Rovers fan, I make sure to get to Memorial Stadium a full hour before the match, because I know first-hand how awful it is to miss the kick-off while stuck in traffic jams or scouring the streets for parking. Thankfully, the Bristol Robotics Lab is working hard to make this frustration a thing of the past. By integrating the self-driving cars that will streamline traffic and eliminate the need for parking, Bristol may soon become a model city for the future of transportation.

How can a car drive itself?

By now, we have all heard about self-driving cars, but what exactly do we mean when we talk about vehicle autonomy? To answer this question, SAE International established the following levels of vehicle autonomy:

  • Level 0 – No Automation: this is the fully manual driving that we are all familiar with today.
  • Level 1 – Driver Assistance: the driver controls most functions, with the exception of a specific function controlled automatically by the car (ex: adaptive cruise control). This level of autonomy is widely available in many cars.
  • Level 2 – Partial Automation: the car has two or more automated features, such as steering, accelerating or braking, while the driver must still respond to traffic signals, change lanes, scan for hazards, etc. (ex: self-parking or lane assist).
  • Level 3 – Conditional Automation: the vehicle can handle all “safety-critical functions” under certain traffic and environmental conditions, but the driver must be ready to retake control of the car when necessary. This “handover” period presents several complex risks of special interest for insurers.
  • Level 4 – High Automation: the vehicle can operate without driver input or oversight, though it may request driver intervention in a few driving scenarios defined by road type or geography.
  • Level 5 – Full Automation: the vehicle can operate fully autonomously in all conditions, with no controls allowing for human intervention.

Vehicles operating at various levels of autonomy will likely coexist on our roads for decades. For this reason, these levels have implications for issues like car insurance, which is expected to change dramatically as algorithms take the wheel alongside – or in place of – human drivers. At AXA, we are working hard to prepare a seamless transition to this new reality.

Prof. Tony Pipe

Deputy Director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory

At Level 4, responsibility passes from the person who's still sitting in the vehicle to somebody else, possibly the car manufacturer, the vehicle manufacturer, the insurance company, the legal system itself.

Why do we need driverless cars?

No longer just an engineer’s fantasy, autonomous vehicles are already on our roads and poised to benefit society in many ways. From safer streets and cleaner air to inclusive mobility, let’s take a look at what driverless cars have in store for society:

1. Safer roads

Road safety is by far the most important benefit that autonomous vehicles have to offer. Never tired and always alert to their surroundings in 360 degrees, driverless vehicles eliminate the cause of 90% of road accidents: human error. Estimates say that pivoting to autonomous vehicles could reduce traffic accidents by 93% by 2040. As car accidents remain the leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds worldwide, with 71 people killed or seriously injured every day on roads in the UK, this technology will likely save many thousands of lives.

David Williams

Managing Director, Underwriting & Technical Services

When 1.25 million people die on roads every year, with over 90% of road accidents caused by human error, we are working on autonomous mobility because it’s the right thing to do. It will make roads safer and save lives.

2. Expanding access to mobility

Accessibility and inclusion are another major benefit of this rapidly advancing technology. In fact, driverless cars can enable door-to-door journeys for everyone, regardless of age, disability or geography. By offering greater mobility and independence to the elderly, sight or hearing impaired or anyone who cannot drive, autonomous vehicles can bring us all together and help promote human connection.

3. Lower costs

Fewer accidents will mean lower premiums. In fact, Morgan Stanley has estimated global financial savings at £3.7 trillion, coming not just from fewer accidents, but also greater productivity and lower fuel costs.

4. More time

By liberating people from the task of active driving, autonomous vehicles will allow us to make the most of the time we spend traveling on roads. Some have estimated that this will free up 1 billion hours a day for people to devote to other activities, like talking to family or catching up on TV series.

5. Cleaner environment

Less traffic means fewer emissions. By reducing congestion, autonomous vehicles may cut CO2 emissions by as much as 300 million metric tons a year.

6. Better cities

On the urban level, autonomous vehicles will have a transformation impact. By increasing motorway capacity by 100% and lowering traffic congestion, this technology can make cities even friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists. In addition, by drastically reducing the need for parking, driverless solutions can free up valuable new real estate in cities.  

Potential benefits of autonomous vehicles on traffic congestion

Welcome to the future of mobility

Despite several initial setbacks, Uber has now racked up millions of autonomous vehicle testing miles, with a fleet of 250 self-driving cars. Meanwhile, Elon Musk announced plans for Tesla to release a fully autonomous vehicle by 2020.

However, American tech giants are not the only ones expanding their research and development of autonomous vehicles. AXA has notably partnered with several innovative projects that have put the UK at the forefront of driverless technology:

  • VENTURER: the first driverless car project to receive government funding in the UK, it studied the technology that enables autonomous vehicles and the way users respond to it. Trials focused on understanding the insurance and legal implications of increased vehicle autonomy, notably during Handover, when a vehicle switches from autonomous mode to being manually driven.
  • UK Autodrive: the program has staged a number of trials examining technologies and the integration of driverless vehicles into existing urban environments. AXA provides the insurance for all trials and has learned valuable information from their results.
  • FLOURISH: this project addresses vulnerabilities in the technology which powers automated vehicles, with a focus on the critical areas of cyber security and wireless communications. It also considers how driverless technology can benefit certain groups who experience transport difficulties: seniors and people with disabilities or visual impairment. Age UK and other charities provided critical input to help us understand and shape solutions for specific groups.
  • Capri: this program studies how driverless vehicles can move between pedestrian and road environments, allowing for seamless transitions to business parks, large shopping centers and other areas where those who cannot drive would typically require several different forms of transport.

Delivering insight into the full capability of autonomous vehicles, these efforts have already proven invaluable in improving our understanding of future transportation challenges and how risks will change over time. With this expertise, AXA can craft the right solutions for its customers, even as technology revolutionizes the market as we know it.

What’s next?

Initial results from these programs have already yielded positive feedback. According to Professor Tony Pipe, Deputy Director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, many participants say that traveling in driverless cars is a relaxing experience, in stark contrast to the frustration of driving in traffic.

Prof. Tony Pipe

Deputy Director of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory

When we first started testing, it was surprising how quickly most operators relax around and in the driverless vehicle.

Today, residents of Bristol can already catch a glimpse of the future as they spot the Wildcat traveling autonomously across the city streets and bridges. Created by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, this specially fitted vehicle gathers massive troves of valuable data for researchers. Indeed, autonomous vehicles will function effectively as computers on wheels, producing between 4 and 14 terabytes of data every day. At AXA, we can use this data to improve our insurance coverage and offer additional products and services to our customers.

With new research into driverless solutions emerging in Coventry, Milton Keynes and Oxford, exciting developments in autonomous vehicle technology are likely to emerge across the UK. Personally, I am thrilled to see how self-driving mobility will transform my hometown of Bristol and cities around the world!

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