Last week brought the tragic news of another train crash – this one at the Hoboken train station in New Jersey. If anyone missed the coverage, one person was killed and over 100 were injured as the train rammed through the station bumpers at high speed, causing the roof to collapse, wreaking havoc and mayhem. Another vehicle crash earlier in the year got major attention as a Tesla Model S auto malfunctioned and crashed into a truck in Florida, killing the driver. These are not the only incidents of this kind. A similar crash at the same Hoboken station occurred just five years ago, while other Tesla vehicles in autopilot mode have crashed, causing serious injuries (most notably in China and Germany). However, comparing the recent Hoboken train crash and the Florida Tesla crash provides some valuable lessons regarding our autonomous future.

The causes of these two terrible tragedies were in some ways completely opposite. The Tesla crash was caused by full automation with no human involvement, while the Hoboken disaster was caused by full reliance on the human engineer using no automation. For both types of situations, hybrid solutions exist. In the Tesla case, drivers using autopilot today have the ability to take control of the wheel in emergency situations. For commuter trains, Positive Train Control (PTC) system technology is available to allow the machine to take control if the driver is incapacitated or fails to make the right decisions. There are certainly political issues related to the PTC systems as well as regulatory issues surrounding autonomous vehicles like Tesla. But it is not the intent of this blog to debate those. However, the topic of human versus machine decisioning comes into stark focus when examining these two cases.

The reality is that neither humans or machines are infallible. And the debates about human vs. machine decision making for vehicles will only intensify as we enter an era where there will be more and more autonomous features built into every machine that moves on land, air, and sea. Autonomous vessels, drones, trucks, and vehicles of all kinds will increasingly have features that are aimed at improving safety and reducing or eliminating the role of human operators. The mix of vehicles with autonomous and semi-autonomous features, the evolution of the artificial intelligence systems guiding the automation, and the new types of vehicles expected on the road will all contribute to a long period of change in transportation. The implications for the insurance industry and society at large are huge. A future with the potential for dramatically reduced accidents, injuries, and death is on the horizon. In the meantime, thoughtful debate, testing, regulation, and technology updates will be required to successfully guide us into the autonomous time to come.

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