When Joshua Brown drove his Tesla last May into a truck making a turn — or, depending on how you view it, when the Tesla drove itself into a truck while Joshua Brown was behind the wheel — the fatal accidenttriggered a crisis for Elon Musk’s electric car company. Was its hands-off Autopilot feature, despite caveats that a driver’s hands should be ready to grab control in a split second, inherently unsafe? Did its auto-braking system fail? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) launched a seven-month investigation. Early this year, it concluded: “A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time and further examination of this issue does not appear to be warranted.” Though the agency cautioned that its investigation did not preclude the possibility that the system has a safety-related defect, Tesla felt vindicated.
Now an auto insurance startup called Root is taking that conclusion to the bank, so to speak. It believes that the investigation, as well as its own studies on the matter, make a strong case that Teslas with Autopilot are safer than just plain humans. So confident is Root about this that, starting today, it is charging Tesla drivers lower fees if they turn on and use the controversial Autopilot feature.
“When we believe that a car is in autonomous mode, we apply a discount to those miles,” says Root CEO Alex Timm. “It’s a pretty significant amount of premium — a little above 10 percent for now.” The discounts get higher as the percentage of highway miles driven increases.
Some people might find this discount surprising considering recent reports (including one we ran on Backchannel just last week) that Autopilot is somewhat of a work in progress. But Timm agrees with Tesla that the driving-assist system, even as Tesla keeps improving it, is superior to a plain old human driving the vehicle. “We believe that these cars are definitively safer,” says Timm.
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