Should Waymo Have to Disclose Who's Insuring Its Driver-Free Taxis?

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Waymo is on the verge of making history.

Google’s self-driving car spinoff has been driving the autonomous vehicle revolution for years. The tech giant is arguably responsible for setting off the technological arms race that’s led to the breakneck proliferation of the new-age autos.

Now the company is about to reap the rewards of its leadership status.

As the company has been blazing the trail to this brave new world, Waymo may have intentionally sped past a few signposts along the way. Waymo is still leaving some vital information off its application to do driver-free runs in California—at least on the version the public can see.

Insurance Without Assurance

redacted document
Waymo's insurance information, when released by the California DMV, was heavily redacted and did not include details about who is insuring the company or for how much.

Despite its position at the heart of tech innovation, California is, in many ways, a strange place to develop a new product.

The state is notoriously regulation-heavy. California even tussled with Waymo for several years over autonomous car testing requirements before finally accepting the company’s pitch that the vehicles could be trusted without pedals and steering wheels.

So when Waymo applied for its driver-free specs in the state, it left nary a stone unturned in its 102-page application, covering everything from company contact information to a breakdown of its rider support training program.

Still, in a version of the form made public through a freedom of information request by the publication The Recorder, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) redacted nearly everything from the lengthy section on how the cars—and their intended passengers—will be insured.

And there are intended passengers. The company has stated that the first riders of its fleet of 39 Chrysler Pacifica minivans will be Waymo employees. Eventually, volunteers from the public will also be invited to join.

Yet all that can be publicly deigned from the application is that Waymo has taken out 6 different insurance plans—general liability; automobile liability; excess liability; worker’s compensation liability; and property—all of which are valid through June 2019.

How much those policies will pay out in any case of injury or property damage, however, has been shielded from public view, along with a later section listing “additional information” on the general liability and property insurance plans.

When reached for comment on the issue by The Recorder, DMV lawyer Emily Bisnett said the agency had blacked out any information in the application that Waymo had classified a “trade secret.”

But does the type of foundational assurances members of the public can expect when submitting themselves to experimental technology really have the right to remain hidden?

Previous Proclamations

Indeed, when Waymo inked a landmark deal with the startup car insurance company Trov this past winter, it could barely keep the news to itself.

Concocted to cover the company’s burgeoning autonomous taxi business in Arizona, the move was marked as historic in its own right, considered the first insurance plan to be issued on the cutting-edge rides.

Very few specific details on the policy have been released—missing, once again, was how much passengers could expect to be compensated in the case of an incident—though Trov officials noted that the plan was good to cover anything from lost or damaged passenger property to medical expenses incurred in a self-driving accident, on a “trip-by-trip, mile-by-mile basis.”

The on-demand insurance app company and Waymo also both insisted that the cost of the policy wouldn’t impact riders, nor would passengers need to know that the vehicles were insured under Trov. The autonomous car company, in this case, would be the sole owner of the insurance plan.

Yet even when actively promoting this new concept, Waymo’s novel niche in the ride-hailing market may have allowed it to get away with sharing less information than its competitors.

The More You Know

In case a driver gets in an accident, Uber and Lyft include detailed information about their insurance on their websites or apps.

While none of the country’s alternative ridesharing services are required to disclose every detail of their insurance plans, most have still made specific numbers publicly available.

Rules regarding the autonomous taxi’s next closest kin—human-driven taxis—are different in every state. The vehicles are required to be heavily insured across the board, though, with minimum personal injury coverage for drivers ranging from $250,000 to $500,000.

Limos, charter buses, and other for-hire vehicles are similarly provincially governed. Many companies still spell out many specifics of their insurance policies: if not publicly, at least in the contract any potential client must sign to obtain the service.

And on-demand rideshare users, in nearly every case, agree to a blanket insurance scenario when accepting the terms of use of the program.

Lyft makes those terms available both on its website and through its app.

The Silicon Valley company divides each trip into three separately insured “periods,” including:

  • Period 1, when a driver has the app open but has not yet been assigned a ride.
  • Period 2, when a driver is en route to a specific client.
  • Period 3, which spans from the time the rider steps into the car to the time they leave it.

Liability plans during the first phase match the minimum coverage requirement in nearly every state, at a $50,000 limit per person, a $100,000 maximum per accident, and a $25,000 cap for personal property damage.

Phases two and three carry a $1 million accident limit provided by Lyft—though the coverage comes with a stiff $2,500 deductible for drivers.

Uber splits up its rides similarly, offering the same amount of coverage for each phase, though drivers for the app company are only on the hook for a $1,000 deductible. Uber also offers an additional driver injury protection policy through the insurance company Aon, which covers up to $500 per week in disability payments, $1 million in medical expenses, and $150,000 in survivor benefits in a worst-case scenario.

New Rules for the New Age

Of course, Waymo won’t have to worry about driver injury protection—or, indeed, the first phase described by Uber and Lyft at all.

Because getting rid of human drivers is the exact point behind the enterprise, and, perhaps, the exact reason why Waymo should be even more forthcoming about the type of coverage it does extend to the humans it wants to have in its cars, especially when those passengers will be volunteering for rides in experimental vehicles that will only help inform Waymo on how to further develop its profitable technology.

Still, with any hope of federal autonomous car regulations quickly becoming a long shot, and national agencies like the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) historically hewing to standards set by the autonomous car industry itself, it seems Waymo may not just be on the verge of making history, but of setting a precedent of secrecy for the transportation of the future.

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