Return of the Guru

Zero-Fatality Cars: Very Safe, But Probably Not Much Fun to Drive

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, August 9, 2010

I was very interested to read an Internet report recently that promises we will have zero-fatality cars within the next 10 to 20 years. Car companies will apparently employ computer simulations and virtual engineering to build safer cars and help reduce fatalities.  

The report goes on to explain that future vehicles will have active safety systems that slow the car as it follows curves in the road, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication that warns you about approaching traffic, meaning they will be much safer to drive. And there will be other safety features, such as road-sign recognition, pedestrian detection and autonomous car controls. 

But assuming we all eventually get these super-safe vehicles, what does that do to the auto insurance industry?  My first thought is that everyone’s auto insurance premiums would have to drop precipitously, since the likelihood of serious, much less fatal accidents, would be severely reduced.  On second thought, why would we need auto insurance at all?  Sufficiently perfected, these technologies should be able to prevent any accident from happening—unless something unexpected, like a tree limb, hits your vehicle. 

It seems to me that the more advanced such technologies become, the less need we will have for auto insurance.  At the very least, auto insurance will become a much less profitable business—a prospect that should send shivers down the spines of every auto insurer out there.  How will all those carriers replace that income?  Perhaps the answer is for insurers to start investing in such technologies and the companies who make them.  That way, when cars become too safe to bother insuring, the insurers can still collect royalties on the technologies that made those vehicles so accident-free. 

But my real problem with this trend is personal.  You see, I drive a fast little sports car with 7 speeds and lots of horsepower, and I confess that I enjoy taking the occasional sharp turn at higher than recommended speed or doing zero to 60 in less than five seconds.  With all those new technologies on board, however, my ride would probably be about as much fun as a trip across the yard on a riding mower. 

Now I realize that some of you may think me rather immature for complaining about new technologies that will, after all, save lives and reduce injuries and damage to vehicles.  That’s a fair criticism, and I accept it with the lack of grace typical of someone who wants his cake while eating it, too.  I have nothing against reducing fatalities and avoiding injuries, but somehow the thought of not being able to put my little hot rod through its paces is depressing.  If driving is going to be so completely controlled by computers, one might just as well lay tracks everywhere and take the train. 

I am only somewhat heartened by the reality that such vehicles are 10 to 20 years away. I also hold out a slim hope that we drivers will somehow be allowed to override some of those safety features and enjoy the optimum performance of our cars.  Unfortunately, however, I can already see small-minded bureaucrats salivating over having that much control over the rest of us. 

And who can argue with saving lives and preventing injury?  Auto enthusiasts—enjoy your vehicles while you still can!

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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Comments (1)

I, too, enjoy experiencing my humanity by occasionally pressing the performance envelope of whatever vehicle I happen to be driving. I find such activity very stimulating. I suspect however, that depending on the level of intrusion that we allow government to achieve, we spirited driving enthusiasts will still be able to enjoy our visceral automotive experiences. We merely need to evoke that time honored phrase from Star Trek (pick your favorite version, but not the J.J. Abrams one - I do have my standards), "switch to manual override."

Even my recently acquired Toyota Corolla has electronic stability control and the ability to switch it off. More expensive and higher performing autos have the ability to select the level of automated assistance in "keeping the shiny side up." I just hope that as vehicles become more sophisticated in this area, we are provided the opportunity to wrestle control from the smarter bits even at the risk of injuring ourselves. Of course, the next phrase should have been, "...or others," but I feel that is the good side of this potential kill-joy.

As you may recall, I am of the opinion that we stand to benefit from a little more nanny behavior from our toys (i.e., smarter behavior). Imagine the vehicle of tomorrow that has the capability to almost entirely reduce fatalities as a result of user error, other driver error, weather, and a host of other risks. You and I would dial the nanny-factor down to whatever level we thought we could handle or even turn it off. But in my vision of a car with such capabilities, it would never quite turn off. It could always be ready to step in if we were about to deviate from the realm of personal liberty and into the domain of public safety. This new generation of smart vehicle would recognize or scout for the potential of our activities to injure others, and then intercede - kinda like I would do with you by riding shotgun and saying, "Do you see that duck?"

Of course, it is only fitting that I conclude my comments by suggesting that in such matters we again refer to Star Trek and Roddenberry's "Prime Directive" - non-interference in the affairs of another culture. My corollary to this is that we should be free to do as we please, so long as we respect others and their rights, or be willing to accepts the consequences.

Posted by: jbisker | August 13, 2010 11:36 AM

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