Innovation generally gets ahead of the regulators, legislatures, and industries designed to handle the risks of innovation. This has been a truism since Gutenberg debuted his press. At the moment, a reason for totality in a Tesla driving on autopilot is in the news. National Transportation Safety Board investigators say that the model last was driving almost 10 miles an hour over the 65 miles per hour speed limit. The car struck a semi, and the driver was killed when his vehicle went under the truck. It is not known at the time who is at fault for the accident, since the factors are complex and include the speed of the vehicle and the failure of the truck driver to yield.

It is possible that the insurer of the vehicle will pay the claim, and then subrogate – that is they will file a claim against either Tesla motors or another insurer. Tesla maintains that the company’s current autopilot system does not create an autonomous vehicle and therefore the driver retains responsibility. At the moment, the United States government does not have any regulations governing autonomous cars, or even enhanced features that enable cars to stay in lanes, moderate speed, and avoid collisions. As of now, cars are ranked in four levels by the NHTSA.

  • Level 0: Completely un-automated. The driver is solely in control of the vehicle.
  • Level I: Involving one or more specific controls a specific functions including assisted breaking or stability controls.
  • Level II: Automation of a minimum two functions such as lane centering and adaptive cruise controls.
  • Level III: Automation where the driver allows the car full control of safety critical functions under certain conditions to the vehicles monitoring systems.
  • Level IV: fully autonomous self-driving car, which performs all driving functions and monitors roadway conditions. The driver in this case is not expected to have any input as to the control of the car at all, aside from destination and navigation input.

In addition, the increasing automation in cars is run by computers. The sheer amount of data collected by an onboard computer is available to safety regulators, insurers, and law enforcement. Think of these as the equivalent of a black box in a commercial airliner. Data such as speed, road conditions, and other information can be relayed and help to build a more complete picture of what happened during an accident, whether it is single or multiple vehicle.

While the technology is advancing quickly, and we may see autonomous vehicles on the road in a very short period of time, the need for insurance is not going away. Even autonomous vehicles can have errors in programming, and human error will remain a factor in automobile accidents for a long time to come. The insurance industry will respond to the development of autonomous vehicles, in the way they adapted to the introduction of turn signals, windshield wipers, and airbags. While autopilot holds the promise of being the biggest safety innovation in automotive history, for the time being it remains a developing technology running ahead of our ability to regulate it.