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Driverless Trucks and Motor Truck Cargo Insurance

Inland Marine_Driverless trucks

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In May 2015, Daimler began testing what it called the world’s first, licensed autonomous truck on Nevada public roads. Promotional material1 for the Daimler Inspiration Freightliner shows a spacious cab full of sensors, instruments and screens. A driver reclines in the chair, playing with a tablet, eyes off the road. Daimler’s autonomous truck works a lot like a plane’s autopilot system. The truck driver starts the rig, programs the trip and gets the truck on the highway. After that, the truck drives itself at high speeds, using cameras to stay within its lane and to ensure the truck doesn’t get too close to the vehicle in front of it.

In the US, trucking is the dominant mode of freight transportation. More than 10 billion tons of cargo or almost 70% of all US freight tonnage moved by trucks in 2014.2 The trucking industry employs nearly 7 million people, including 3.4 million drivers. One of the biggest challenges to the industry today is finding enough qualified truck drivers. According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), there are 30,000 to 35,000 unfilled truck driver jobs in the US annually.  

Driving a truck isn’t easy. In fact, it’s one of the toughest jobs around. Drivers work long hours, face continual pressure to deliver the loads on time or even overnight. Driver fatigue is a major issue and is often the main cause of accidents and cargo loss. In this article, we ask the inland marine experts at XL Catlin to speculate on how driverless trucks might be the answer to the trucking industries challenges of driver shortages, driver fatigue and cargo theft.  

The #1 risk factor: safety and truck drivers

About 1 in 10 highway deaths involves a large truck. In 2013, a total of 3,602 people died in large truck crashes. That’s 14% more than in 2009, when fatal truck crash rates were lower than at any year since collection of truck crash data began in 1975.2  

There are three main reasons why truck accidents have been increasing. The first is fairly obvious. That is the disparity in size between a passenger car and a truck. Trucks often weight 20 to 30 times more than a passenger car. Trucks are also taller with greater ground clearance, which can result in smaller vehicles under-riding trucks in crashes.

Braking capability is another factor. Loaded tractor-trailers need 20 to 40% more distance to stop than a car would need. And when the roads are wet and slippery, the distance needed increases substantially.

Driver fatigue is another big factor. By Federal hours-of-service regulations, drivers of large trucks can drive up to 11 hours at a stretch and up to 77 hours over a seven-day period. With the lack of qualified truck drivers and the continual pressure to get the loads delivered, surveys indicate that many drivers violate the regulations and work longer than permitted. 

Statistics aren’t yet available about the safety of driverless trucks, even though the military is already using these trucks in combat situations. However, Google’s self-driving car has already driven over 100,000 miles without an accident. The self-driving cars have already driven over 1.7 million miles.  According to Google, they have been involved in only 11 accidents, “… all caused by humans and not computers. And this mostly within metropolitan areas”.

 

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Since accidents have a major impact on pricing motor truck cargo insurance, if this exposure decreases, rates would logically follow suit.

 

While the driverless truck is still in its infancy, these trucks would definitely address the shortage of drivers and, more importantly, they have the potential to reduce the risk of accidents and driver fatigue.  Since accidents have a major impact on pricing motor truck cargo insurance, if this exposure decreases, rates would logically follow suit.

The #2 risk factor: cargo theft

In 2014, FreightWatch International (FWI) recorded 794 cargo thefts throughout the US. The average value per theft reached $232,924 – a 30% increase in value over 2013 values. That translates into an average of 66 cargo thefts per month or 2.2 per day.4

The most highly sought after shipments in the US are pharmaceuticals, consumer electronics, apparel and food.  The vast majority of cargo thefts occur within the first 200 miles of the transport, in the so-called Red Zone. Cargo thieves now typically monitor freight facilities closely so they can target specific loads.

To avoid exposure to the so-called Red Zone, FreightWatch says carriers and shippers alike should ensure drivers preparing to depart under load should have enough logbook hours for at least four hours of straight driving and carry enough fuel to safely traverse the Red Zone before stopping.  A driverless truck would not need to stop. It could go direct from the shipping center to the distribution center, thus becoming less of a target for thieves.

From an underwriting standpoint, higher pricing and large deductibles or theft limitations apply to commodities that are highly susceptible to theft.  If the risk of theft decreases, insurance rates could decrease and terms could become less restrictive.  A lower cost of insurance would ultimately be passed on to the consumer by way of lower freight rates.

Insurance and the driverless truck

Martin Ford, author of “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future”, writes that “while trucks may indeed soon be able to essentially drive themselves, the staggering destructive potential of these vehicles probably means that someone is going to remain in the driver’s seat for the foreseeable future.” Daimler agrees. “We don’t want to get rid of drivers,” says Sven Ennerst, head of Daimler Trucks’ Development Department.

In truth, the big liability issues around driverless trucks are yet to be answered. A lot of testing needs to be done yet. Who is responsible if there’s an accident? What if weather causes a major pileup on highway? What if the truck breaks down or something goes wrong with the technology? Is it considered a product defect or cyber risk? What if the vehicle is hacked and a collision occurs, damaging the cargo? Or, the truck is hacked and driven to another location where the cargo is then stolen? There are still a lot of questions about the liability issues surrounding a driverless truck.  

With the massive amount of attention focused on self-driving cars, Volvo recently announced that US Federal authorities need to impose nationwide guidelines for self-driving cars. In addition, the Swedish automotive group vowed to accept full liability should one of its cars be involved in an accident while in autonomous mode.  

While it may be more than a decade before the motoring public sees driverless trucks on the road, inland marine insurers, including XL Catlin, will be ready when that day comes.


Contact the author
Alexander McGinley, Vice President, Inland Marine, XL Catlin, 860-709-3695 or alexander.mcginley@xlcatin.com.

Sources

1 Daimler promotional video on Inspiration Freightliner, www.theverge.com/2015/5/6/8556791/self-driving-semi-big-rig-freightliner-inspiration-truck

2 ATA American Trucking Trends 2015 - http://www.trucking.org/article.aspx?uid=d62a253d-b830-4fa3-b069-f7f8ff5d40df

3 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute, Large trucks - http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/large-trucks/fatalityfacts/large-trucks

4 FreightWatch International (FWI) in its Annual Cargo Theft Report for 2014

5 DowJones Newswires™ U.S. Must Create National guidelines for Self-Driving Cars, says Volvo” by Christina Zander, October 7, 2015

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