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Safety, Security and Telematics in Times of Trouble (PART 2)

Winter may be almost over for another year, but risky driving is not. Ask most anyone who’s been driving recently along snow and ice covered roads and they’ll agree driving is risky, particularly in winter and during peak driving times when everyone is in a hurry and seemingly not paying proper attention to unsafe road conditions. NHTSA statistics continue to report more than 30,000 motor vehicle-related fatalities each year across the United States and there are more and more registered vehicles and licensed drivers on the roads now than ever in history. Even with better technology more cars on the roads means increasing risk.

Icy roads are more likely to threaten your life than any other weather condition too. Every year hundreds of people die due to icy roads, more than twice as many deaths than attributed to tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning and severe thunderstorms combined. Getting into your car for a drive is most likely the riskiest thing you do each day, most particularly in bad weather.

Driving on snow and ice requires extra practice and attention. Have you practiced your winter driving skills in a snowy parking lot lately? AAA offers some good winter driving tips that are important reminders, including free brochures to download with checklists: Get a Grip: A Guide to Wet Weather Driving Techniques and How to Go on Ice and Snow. When trouble comes at you it really pays to be prepared!

Risk factors in driving go far beyond road conditions though. The bottom line is always the human element – it’s usually all about the driver. Until some magical future time with sparkling unicorns and constant sunshine, when flying cars are all driving themselves and there are no crashes, telematics can actually help us be better down-to-earth daily drivers.

In the earlier first part of this blog post I’d noted that safety and security have been synonymous buzzwords with vehicle telematics since the earliest successful applications of the technology. Telematics can monitor driving patterns and behaviors, provide better driver training and coaching, report important alerts such as service intervals and vehicle diagnostic codes, report potentially significant crashes, help find your vehicle if lost or stolen, better assess your real insurance risk to save you money, and provide invaluable data to assist with any insurance claims when needed.

Today nearly every automaker has some kind of built in telematics safety-oriented application and there are numerous aftermarket options. Still, the concept for applying telematics technology to improve safety and security has been developing way too slowly. GM actually had developed a vision more than 50 years ago of what would eventually become OnStar, but needed to wait for the technology and infrastructure to catch up: G.M. Had a Version of OnStar in 1966.

50 years ago the entire auto industry thankfully shifted towards an awakening upheaval to improve vehicle safety, fortified in no small part from the publication of Ralph Nader’s landmark book, “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.” The book exposed glaring automotive safety problems at GM and other OEMs during a pivotal time where sales were increasing and traffic deaths climbing to unprecedented numbers. Autoblog reported recently that Nader’s book, “angered the auto industry, awakened the public and forever changed American automobiles… (but) most importantly, was responsible for saving countless lives.”

We still have a long way to go to realize the essential goal of making driving safer. Even with automated and semi-automated cars there will always be risk. A good article in the Insurance Journal last month called attention to sensors not working in bad weather conditions: Self-Driving Vehicles Meet Their Match When Snow Creates Sensor Blindness. The article stated succinctly that, “With about 70 percent of the U.S. population living in the snow belt, learning how to navigate in rough weather is crucial for driverless cars to gain mass appeal, realize their potential to reduce road deaths dramatically and overcome growing traffic congestion.”

Autonomous vehicles (AV’s) will contribute significantly to reducing congestion and making driving patterns more predictable and routine, which will reduce risk, but mass adoption will develop over a long time and nothing will be perfect. Google recently reported its first accident caused by one of their AV’s: For the First Time, Google Admits Partial Blame for Self-Driving Car Crash. Most certainly this will not be the last time where an AV is found to be at fault.

Ken Washington, VP of Research and Advanced Engineering for Ford, reportedly stated at Mobile World Congress that it isn’t “a given” AV’s will “result in horrible situations where people die,” but called on the industry to “come together” to develop new laws and policy. He said, “I’m not willing to predict, as I sit here today, how the future will look when the first autonomous cars hit the road.”

Increasing numbers of connected cars and AV’s will make powerful change agents for improving driver safety, but of course with great power comes great responsibility. The more advanced that vehicle systems become, the more potential there can be for errors and vulnerability. ZDNet published a recent special series on the Security Challenge of the Internet of Things. One of the articles calls out the connected car as one of this generation’s biggest security risks. A thoughtful article from eWeek also highlighted the problem well in affirming that, “There’s no question that having your car connected to a world of data is convenient and sometimes lifesaving, but with those benefits comes increased security risk.” Everyone wants to feel more safe and secure when driving. This is precisely why meaningful regulation is needed, coupled with positive industry cooperation and strong telematics data security standards.

Google has been pressing hard for the California DMV to publish precedent-setting regulations for more AV’s to be tested and used on public roads. Regulators are struggling though, not only at state DMVs, but all the way up to NHTSA, which has come under fire for undertrained staff and weak processes for analyzing the safety data it collects from automakers and consumers. During 2016 NHTSA is planning for, “a more robust software system for gathering and analyzing data, increased staff training, better internal information-sharing tools and stricter crash reporting requirements for automakers.”

After news about the Google AV crash was reported, Octo Telematics’ Jonathan Hewett stated to ITS International that, “it could be decades before regulators allow vehicles to be built without manual controls, and it is possible that during the transition period when conventional and self-driving vehicles would share the road, safety might actually worsen. It’s clear that throughout this journey, the insurance industry will play an important role, supporting this evolution by providing data driven insurance at every stage.”

When trouble happens that’s when insurance is needed and when telematics-enabled safety features will matter most. Other than at the county fair’s demolition derby, nobody plans on being involved in a crash, but we can take preparatory steps before crashes occur to minimize the impact and consequences when they do happen. We need automatic crash notification and more data sharing, including ways to engage more directly with public safety agencies for serious crash and traffic events. We need the entire industry to come together in support of strong safety standards and compliance to those standards. The future looks bright, let’s take care to wear the right shades!

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