Autonomous Vehicles: Are They Safer?

by Staff Writer on May 29, 2013

Imagine this scenario: It’s Friday night. You’ve had too much to drink, but you’ve got to get home, one way or another. You could rely on a designated driver, use a cab or public transportation, or make the unfortunate (and potentially deadly) decision to drive home drunk. Soon, you may have another option: your very own car could drive you home safely.

That’s the future we may experience with driverless cars, a movement popularized by search giant Google. These robot cars are poised to save 30,000 lives every year on U.S. highways, and prevent two million injuries. Are they the future of safe driving? And, what do these cars mean for the future of auto insurance?

Advanced Safety Features

Google’s Self Driving Cars aren’t enjoying widespread use just yet. Yet the future of safe, automated driving is already here.

Designed to prevent crashes rather than simply protect passengers, advanced safety features are reducing the necessity of human control in driving. You may already be familiar with a few of them: anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and even adaptive headlights that help illuminate dark curves.

Anti-lock brakes are a great example of car safety technology that does what humans can’t possibly do themselves. This feature keeps brakes from locking up during extreme stops, rapidly pumping the brakes at a rate that maintains maximum brake performance, just short of locking up the wheels. Done rapidly with electronics, ABS pumps the brakes safely, and much faster than you’d be able to.

But anti-lock brakes, while still a valuable safety feature, are old news. There’s a new generation of active safety features that are already available in cars today:

  • Electronic stability control uses sensors and a microcomputer to prevent skidding and loss of control that can lead to rollovers. This feature has been shown to reduce fatal crash involvement risk by 33%, a life saving tool for vehicles.
  • Forward collision avoidance warns drivers if they’re likely to crash with traffic ahead of them. In some systems with adaptive cruise control, the car will also brake autonomously, applying brake pressure if the driver doesn’t respond quickly enough. In a study of luxury vehicle insurance claims, models with forward collision systems including automatic braking had 14% lower property damage liability than those that did not have the feature.
  • Emergency brake assist responds to signs of panic braking, applying the brake more quickly and with more force than drivers are able to. In Europe and Japan, where emergency brake assist systems have been in use for more than a decade, this feature has proven its potential as a resource for casualty reduction.
  • Blind spot warning and avoidance uses sensors to detect vehicles in blind spots, where you may not see them. In some cars, this system is also equipped with technology known as blind spot avoidance, applying selective braking to avoid sideswipe accidents.
  • Lane departure systems alert inattentive drivers when they begin to drift into other lanes, or off the road, potentially allowing them to snap back to reality and stay safely in their lane. But, it seems that this feature needs more work, as research from the IIHS indicates that vehicles with these systems have not had a decrease in accidents, but have actually shown an increase in crashes. It’s believed that users ignore or shut off the alerts, which can be frequent even in normal driving.

The benefits of these advanced safety features are well documented, yet some drivers find them to be confusing or annoying. For example. IIHS believes that after too many false alarms, drivers may be turning off their lane departure warning systems. Still, the NHTSA highlights safety features like electronic stability control and forward collision warning as life saving advances in vehicle technology.

Autonomous Cars: The Future of Car Safety

Electronic stability control reduces fatal crash involvement risk by 33%. Luxury cars equipped with forward collision systems including automatic braking boast a 14% lower property damage liability. Active safety features such as these have saved lives and prevented accidents, but there’s always room for improvement. What’s coming to the car of the future? It’s likely to be a car that drives itself safer than humans ever could.

A self driving car takes active safety features to an entirely new level. Instead of supplementing drivers’ skills, this system allows drivers to hand the keys over to their own vehicles. With a car that drives itself, actions that are currently very dangerous, like drunk driving or text messaging behind the wheel, become innocuous. Human error and distraction would be eliminated. Cars that communicate and optimize driving could stop traffic before it starts, saving hours of drive time while also cutting down on pollution. We could enable the elderly and disabled to drive again. We might even send autonomous vehicles to war zones.

Google is leading the way in the development of autonomous vehicles. These self-driving cars operate as a sort of full-featured cruise control. Using sensors, cameras, and a smart system, Google’s vehicles are able to accelerate, brake, turn, and even sense the movements of other vehicles. Just like cruise control, the driver is able to turn this control on and off, taking the wheel when they feel more comfortable driving than allowing the car to take the task.

Auto makers have taken their own steps to explore autonomous vehicles as well. Ford has conducted safety research using sensors and car-to-car anonymous communications. Audi has already begun testing automated vehicles in Nevada with features like automated parking, which with the use of a smartphone would allow a car to valet itself in a parking structure. As a luxury car maker, Audi’s vehicles already have extensive active safety features, so it’s not stretch to ask those features to talk to each other and become automated.

The technology is promising, but it’s too early to plan for your car to chauffeur you home this weekend. Autonomous cars still need a lot of development before they’re ready hit the consumer market. Google’s engineers are working to perfect single-lane highway driving right now, but that’s an easy task compared to what real driving looks like. City driving, even merging onto the freeway will be more difficult for Google’s engineers to master. Bad weather is also a challenge for Google’s cars, as the sensors have difficulty seeing road markings through conditions like snow.

In addition to engineering hurdles, autonomous vehicles face a larger challenge: human drivers. We just don’t want to give up control. Toyota offers adaptive cruise control on its vehicles, keeping cars at a safe distance without using gas or brake pedals. It’s useful technology, but drivers have found it very difficult not to touch the pedals anyway.

Is it Safer?

As Google and car makers develop this technology, the biggest question is: will automation make driving safer? We know that active safety features like electronic stability control and braking assist can save lives. Does that safety continue without a real brain behind the wheel?

Autonomous vehicles are still very new, but technology and testing indicates that they have great potential for improving safety. This makes sense, as human error is to blame for 95% of all accidents. Google’s robot cars have semi-autonomously driven 500,000 miles without a crash, suggesting that cars themselves may be the perfect drivers in the future.

In an interview with NPR, Jeremy Anwyl of advises that automated cars do have potential in mundane and predictable driving tasks. These include parking, or the single-lane freeway driving that Google has done well with so far. But Anwyl believes humans have an advantage when it comes to the unpredictable. “We deal with ambiguity or unexpected situations much better than machines,” said Anwyl.

Autonomous cars have their advantages among the unexpected as well. During testing, a pedestrian between two parked cars went unnoticed by Google engineers, but the car noticed, and slowed down to allow him to pass safely.

Insurance for Autonomous Cars

If autonomous driving makes cars safer, does that mean insurance premiums will go down? Possibly. We know that active safety features like forward collision systems are associated with a reduction in claims, so there’s serious potential for insurance savings with self-driving vehicles.

But will we need car insurance at all? If you’re not driving when an accident occurs, is it your fault? Under current Nevada law, where Google’s car is licensed, the person in the driver’s seat is responsible, as they can override and drive manually. Others believe that auto insurance as we know it may be replaced with manufacturer liability.

A zero accident rate may be possible in the future, but it’s not coming soon. It will take years, maybe decades, for autonomous vehicles to replace regular ones on the road, and during this time, we’ll have a mix of self-driving and human-driven vehicles. Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute doesn’t expect to see insurance rates plummet as autonomous cars are introduced to the road. “As long as there are vehicles on the roadways, there are likely to be accidents,” says Barry.

Also, collisions aren’t the only claims made on auto insurance. Insurance events can include parked cars, so it’s still possible that a tree can fall on your car, or flooding can damage your vehicle, sticking you with major expenses without the help of insurance.

Advanced safety features have saved many lives, and it seems that autonomous vehicles stand to save even more. But when? While auto makers have a more conservative estimate of how long it will take to bring autonomous cars to the market (30 years), Google is much more optimistic, promising to make self-driving vehicles available in less than five years. That means your next car might just be one that drives itself.


Help for the Urban Driver: How to Save on Higher-Than-Average Car Insurance Premiums

by Staff Writer on May 14, 2013

If you live in an urban area, you may expect to pay more in rent, groceries, and utilities than your suburban counterparts. Now add to that list: car insurance.

Your location is just one of many factors that help determine your car insurance rates, but it can be a major one. It’s accepted as a fact of life that if you live in an urban area, you’ll pay more in car insurance than if you lived in a more suburban or rural one. As the logic goes, when there are more people, there’s greater potential for an accident. More densely populated areas also tend to have greater incidents of crime, which can make you more of a risk in the eyes of an insurer.

How much of a difference does it make? Research has shown that the cities that have the highest car insurance rates also tend to be urban areas — prone to such insurance-raising factors as high traffic, high vehicle ownership, car theft and vandalism, and fraud. Take a look at Detroit. According to a Runzheimer International analysis of the most and least expensive cities for automobile insurance, the Motor City has the highest car insurance rates, with an average annual premium of $5,941. Coincidentally, the city also has a high crime rate, ranked second on’s list of least-safe cities and featured among the top 20 “hot spots” for car theft, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). Meanwhile, the cities where cars are least likely to be stolen, according to the NICB, are in comparatively less urban areas, such as State College, Pa., Glens Falls, N.Y., and Sheboygan, Wis., three cities that, incidentally, were also ranked among the safest in the country by CQ Press based on F.B.I. data. And you won’t find these locales anywhere near the top of lists ranking the cities with the most expensive car insurance.

New York City is another metro area that is synonymous with high car insurance premiums. It also boasts one of the most densely population areas in the United States and has some of the worst traffic. A recent report by the Texas Transportation Institute found that in 2012, drivers in the New York region spent 59 hours a year — and lost $1,281 in congestion costs — sitting in traffic. Fraudulent or inflated claims also are driving up insurance premiums; according to the New York Post, drivers in Brooklyn paid an average of $2,143 a year in insurance premiums in 2009 — 72% higher than the statewide average — in part due to massive insurance fraud.

Similar stories can be found at urban areas across the country, from Philadelphia, whose high traffic density contributes to an average annual premium of $4,076 based on Runzheimer International analysis, to Miami, which ranks among the top 50 hot spots on the NICB’s car theft report and has one of the highest average annual premiums, at $3,388. For comparison, the Runzheimer International data found that in the cities with the lowest car insurance rates — places like Portland, Maine, and Boise, Idaho — the average annual premium ranged from $937 to $1065.

What is an urban driver to do? Not buying car insurance isn’t the answer, of course, but unfortunately, many drivers do just that. In Detroit, a widely cited 2008 report from the Detroit Legal News found that more than half of all drivers are uninsured — owing in part to the city’s high car insurance premiums. But whether you use your car sporadically for weekend getaways or big trips to Ikea, or regularly to get to work, you can find relief. Big cities are improving transportation options so that their residents don’t have to be so reliant on their cars and starting to enact legislation to take the burden of car insurance costs off drivers so you’re not stuck with a bloated bill each month.

Mass Transit: Helping Cities Become Less Car-Centric

Mass transit has long helped limit or eliminate car use, as well as ease congestion and reduce the risk of accidents occurring. But recently, extending and making public transportation more accessible and user-friendly to offer drivers a different option is part of a nationwide trend — and its getting drivers off the roads. Hampton, Va., right outside of Norfolk, saw a 154% increase in public transportation rides since extending its rail line in August 2011, according to a recent report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The report also found double-digit increases in public transportation rides in Memphis, Dallas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Seattle, and increases in commuter rail ridership in Austin, Seattle, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Cities like Salt Lake City and Phoenix that developed rail transit in the past decade also saw boosts in ridership.

Overall, more people than ever before are turning to public transportation. In fact, 2012 ranked as the second-highest transit ridership year since 1957 — second behind 2008 — with rides on subways, commuter rails, light rail, trolleys, and buses increasing 1.5% over the previous year. The study’s authors see these figures as representing a sea change in the way people look at transportation.

“There is a sea change going on in the way that people look at transportation,” APTA President Michael Melaniphy said in a statement on the study. “Americans want travel choices; they want to be able to choose the best travel option for their lives.”

Los Angeles is one such city where residents’ views towards public transportation are changing. The nation’s second largest city with nearly 4 million people, the city is notorious for its traffic jams. It’s even been named the worst city in the nation for traffic by the Texas Transportation Institute. Given this high risk, car insurance costs are also predictably high (California as a whole has one of the highest premiums in the nation, with an average annual premium of $1,819, according to a However, the city has started taking measures to help drivers become less dependent on their cars, which can help lower their risks behind the wheel — and their insurance costs. In 2008, voters passed a bill to raise sales taxes a half cent to help fund transportation projects and upgrades throughout the county. This includes the creation of a light rail line on the Westside and extensions to existing lines spread out over the next 30 years.

Even cities that already have extensive public transportation systems are working to increase commuters’ options and become less reliant on cars. In New York City, more commuters than ever are taking advantage of the subway system’s 21 interconnected routes. In 2012, the average weekday subway ridership was 5.4 million, the highest since 1950, with annual ridership at also at a high at 1.7 billion. In addition to the extensive system already in place, New York City has begun a $4.4 billion project to create a new subway line for east side Manhattan commuters, as well as a $2.1 billion subway line extension of the 7 line. The projects are scheduled to be finished in 2016 and mid-2014, respectively.

Law-Making: Working to Relieve Bloated Premiums

High car insurance premiums in certain areas may have more to do than just high-density or traffic. Michigan, which has the highest car insurance premiums in the nation according to the report, offers unlimited lifetime medical care for auto-related injuries under its no-fault auto insurance system. It’s the only state to do so, and such an expansive system is also expensive. Policy holders must pay an extra $175 per insured vehicle a year because of it. When you add in the fact that more than half of drivers in Detroit are uninsured, that can also mean higher rates for the city’s residents.

To help lower the runaway car insurance rates, state legislatures have recently introduced a bill that would put a cap on Michigan’s unlimited personal injury protection coverage and require auto insurance premiums to be lowered by at least $125 per vehicle in the first year, with the potential for larger savings later. The move is not without its detractors, with opponents arguing that the reductions aren’t worth losing unlimited medical benefits, but the talks to curb the state’s outrageous car insurance costs are encouraging.

Other states have also responded to calls for reduced insurance premiums with legislation. In Florida, which is a no-fault state, fraudulent insurance claims resulting from staged car accidents have been rampant, driving up premiums. According to the NICB, fraudulent claims rose 119% in Florida from 2008 to 2010 alone. To discourage fraudulent insurance claims, and potentially bring down car insurance premiums, a new bill went into effect earlier this year that puts a limit on the amount of personal injury protection available for victims of accidents. It will take a few months to see what effect the legislation has on drivers’ rates.

How to Save on Your Premium

Regardless of alternative transportation options such as rail systems, buses, or even riding a bike, if you own a car in an urban area, your auto insurance is still going to cost you more than it would in other parts of the country. If your local or state government isn’t working to decrease the cost of your premium through alternative transportation options or legislation, there are still a number of ways you can help yourself and save a little bit of extra money a month by being a smarter urban driver.

Shop around

Insurance companies each use different formulas to determine your rate, charging more or less for certain zip codes. By shopping around and getting quotes from a variety of insurers — both national and independent — you can find the best price for your wallet. The Insurance Information Institute recommends getting at least three price quotes.

Limit your car usage

In addition to location, car insurance companies also factor overall mileage into determining your rate. If you only drive your car occasionally, or have a short commute, you may qualify for a low mileage discount. If you’re driving your car every day to work, but have a viable transportation alternative, such as a subway or commuter rail, you should talk to your insurance provider to see what your savings might be if you change your habits. Of course, you’ll want to make sure that any potential car insurance and gas savings are greater than what you’ll have to start shelling out for public transportation.

Change your car

If you’re in the market for a new car, what you buy may save you money — in the end helping off-set high car insurance premiums in your city. For instance, under California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project, drivers can take advantage of rebates of up to $2,500 for plug-in hybrids and other zero-emission vehicles. Since implemented in 2009, the program has been so popular, the state recently had to pump more money into the rebate account. You can find out what incentives and rebates are available in your state by going green through the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Discourage theft

It’s harder than ever to steal a car today, thanks to developments like immobilizer chips in car keys, positioning technologies, and advanced theft-deterrent systems. If you’re driving an older model that’s not as hip to these advancements, there still are ways you can discourage thieves. A steering wheel lock can be a common sight in urban areas because they make cars look like less of an easy target. Similarly, a “tire claw” lock can keep one wheel from moving and thus harder to steal. For a bit more money, you can install a car alarm that will go off if a car door is opened without a key. If your car doesn’t have a built-in immobilizer chip, you can mimic the safety feature by installing a “kill switch” at a secret spot in your car that then needs to be turned on to start the engine. These theft deterrents may cost you a bit of extra money, but you can talk to your insurance provider to see if they will help lower your rate.

Be a good driver

Many insurance companies offer discounts to customers simply for being good drivers. If you’ve had a clean driving record — no accidents or moving violations — for at least three years, you may be eligible for a good driver discount. Similarly, taking a defensive driving course may also help lower your rates.

High car insurance rates don’t have to a necessary evil of living in an urban area. By knowing your options and what’s going on in your city, you can become a smarter driver and make more informed decisions about when and what you drive — in the end helping reduce your risk and cost of being insured. Even if it’s just a few dollars a month, it’s money worth saving.


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