In late September, car maker Tesla revealed a truly remarkable new technology for its cars, called Smart Summon. This software application enables Tesla drivers to use their smartphones — almost like joysticks — to order their cars to come to them.
With Smart Summon, you can walk out of a grocery store, pull out your smartphone, and request that your Tesla drive itself from its parking space to the curb where you’re standing, to pick you up.
Search the web for “smart summon” and you’ll already find hundreds of articles and videos about this new technology. The new self-driving feature has been met with immense curiosity and enthusiasm, as well as concern.
One of those articles has been written by Timothy Lee for arstechnica.com. After watching more than one hundred Smart Summon videos, Lee offers his impressions of the technology. “Smart Summon certainly has weaknesses (and I’ll discuss those in detail),” he writes, “but it’s important to first acknowledge that the technology worked in the vast majority of the more than 100 videos I viewed. I watched dozens of people successfully summon their cars from across parking lots without incident.”
It’s amazing to see Lee’s curated collection of perfect drives and near misses that have resulted from use of this new application.
Yet, while worthy of excitement, the new Smart Summon feature does raise many “what if” questions surrounding liability and insurance coverage.
What if a Tesla were to hit another vehicle, or is hit by another vehicle, while it is in the process of being summoned — and there’s no one physically driving the vehicle? Who is responsible?
Even worse, what if a Tesla were to hit a pedestrian while in Smart Summon mode? Is the “driver” — or summoner of the vehicle — at fault, or is the car’s manufacturer?
Watch a Tesla in Smart Summon mode try to navigate out of a parking space with a pedestrian nearby.
Insurance Policies Have Been Left in the Dust
Just like a fully loaded Tesla Model S zooming ahead of a diesel semi-truck after a light turns green, self-driving vehicle technology has raced ahead of state and federal laws. Insurance companies, too, have plenty of catching up to do.
Customarily, insurance companies cover the liability caused by the driver while utilizing a vehicle, as well as damages caused when another driver either doesn’t have insurance or doesn’t have enough coverage.
Prior to the availability of Smart Summon technology, it would have been highly unlikely for insurance companies to seriously contemplate whether they needed to provide coverage for vehicles that were suddenly able to drive themselves.
In other words, a scenario in which a summoned Tesla gets into an accident while the insured “driver” navigates her Model S with her phone through a busy Home Depot parking lot, to pick her up at the curb, would have seemed pretty far-fetched just a few weeks ago.
To continue with that example, imagine that a human-operated vehicle crashed into the smart-summoned Tesla in a parking lot. The Tesla owner wouldn’t have an injury claim, but she certainly would have a property damage claim. Does the insurance policy afford coverage in that situation?
Arguably, at this point in time, the insurance company would have to provide coverage. Even though the car may be “driverless,” the assumption is that the insured would be the owner/operator of that vehicle — commanding her vehicle through her phone.
But this is only an assumption. Such scenarios haven’t been fleshed out in the court of law yet. Smart Summon is too new.
Until such cases develop, cause for concern will remain. Use of Smart Summon will continue to raise important questions about who is ultimately responsible for an accident.
Just as we will learn of updates that Tesla has made to Smart Summon, we will assuredly witness a constant evolution of other applications that are coming to market. Insurance coverages afforded to these vehicles will change, as well.
Parallels with Rideshare Insurance
It wasn’t that long ago when Uber and Lyft first made it possible for people to use their own cars for hire.
During the early days of Uber and Lyft, there were never exclusions in automobile policies. If you were driving your vehicle for hire, not being covered by your personal auto insurance policy was unthinkable. The need for a secondary or supplemental insurance policy, or coverage options from a rideshare company, was the last thing on an Uber or Lyft driver’s mind.
Today, a huge number of people drive for Uber and Lyft — many on a part-time basis. Yet, nearly every individual insurance policy excludes coverage for driving for a rideshare company, should he or she get into an accident while using a personal vehicle for a commercial purpose.
In the ridesharing industry, insurance policies eventually caught up with technology. We’ll probably see the same thing happen with Tesla’s Smart Summon application.
A Developing Story
When a revolutionary technology emerges, the story surrounding the technology will take time to develop. At the time of writing this article, Smart Summon is in its third week of use. Numerous companies are working on technologies that are similar to Tesla’s. It’s almost impossible to predict what will happen next.
Undoubtedly, insurance policies will evolve. We will witness challenges to insurance coverage. We are going to learn where responsibility lies with self-driving cars. We’ll find out whether insurance companies will assume responsibility and provide coverage, should a driverless accident or injury occur.
In the meantime, be sure to watch these newest Smart Summon videos. They are fantastic and captivating. The ability to order a vehicle to pull out of a parking space, drive in a crowded parking lot, navigate its way around cars and pedestrians, and pick us up in the front of a store, is mind-bending.