We have talked previously here about the rush to develop computer-driven technologies for automobiles and the challenges that will be faced by insurers as the risks posed by these technologies become manifest.
Now it appears that the car companies are moving hard and fast for more of these technologies, which means, among other things, that insurers quickly need to decide how to handle and price these emerging risks. According to a recent online posting in Computerworld, Ford hopes to enable forward-looking technological features based on current in-car interface technology combined with wireless networks and Smartphones.
Imagine if, while driving, the cars further up the road could warn you of a speed trap ahead, or that a restaurant that's highly recommended by a Facebook friend is nearby, the posting notes. Venkatesh Prasad, group and senior technical leader at Ford's Vehicle Design and Infotronics division, told attendees at M.I.T.'s Emerging Technology conference recently that the automaker is already testing a network that would link cars with cloud-based applications.
Prasad pointed out that today’s automotive interactive technologies are based on the auto industry's 10-year development cycles—meaning the estimated time a car will be on the road. Thus, the technology available when a person buys a car quickly becomes outdated. Rather than embedding devices, then, Ford is putting money into building network interface and hardware connectivity technology that would allow communication between vehicles and next-generation tablets or smart phones.
“We're trying to reach out and explore new dimensions. The benchmark's not what's in a [competitor's] car, but what's in the driver's hand,” Prasad says, referring to Smartphone technology. Whether devices are native or simply enabled by an in-car network, however, the problem from an insurance point of view remains the same: What is in the driver’s head—specifically how attention to onboard devices of any kind detracts from the safety of the driving experience.
Studies have already shown that talking on a cell phone while driving is as harmful to driver performance as driving while impaired—thus the plethora of laws prohibiting this activity. It stands to reason that as our devices, onboard or portable, offer more functionality they will be that much more distracting and potentially dangerous while behind the wheel. So how will insurers handle what will clearly be a riskier driving environment?
Certainly, only time will tell how risky technology's distraction for drivers will grow to be, but can we afford to wait for the accident numbers to come in? Do we assume a risk on par with cell phone use, or do we wait for lawmakers to make the first move on regulating use of interactive devices in cars? It seems to me that only proactive testing can begin to provide answers that insurers can live with in terms of customer safety and accurately underwriting risks.
The real question may be this: Can we do the testing at a fast enough pace to stay ahead of the automotive technology product development curve? Probably not, but we need, in all good conscience, to give it our best try.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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