Warren Buffett: Self-driving cars will upend car insurance

Billionaire investor predicts big long-term changes, praises Ralph Nader.

At least two prominent billionaires believe the arrival of self-driving cars will eventually spell the end of the auto insurance industry, at least in its current form. Speaking on CNBC's Squawk Box on Monday morning, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates said they believe autonomous vehicles will upend car insurers.

"There's no question," said Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. "Anything that makes cars safer is very pro-social, and it's bad for the auto insurance industry. But nevertheless, the auto industry has always worked on making cars safer. They've led the way on seatbelts and all that. But if there are no accidents, there's no need for insurance."

The first steps of that transition are already taking place. Earlier this year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety played a key role in brokering a voluntary agreement among the 20 leading carmakers in the United States to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature in all cars by 2022.

Early studies of that feature, which many consider a fundamental building block on the road toward autonomous cars, show they can reduce rear-end crashes by 40 percent, and in crashes they can't prevent, automated braking can at least mitigate the severity of crashes.

But Gates believes it will be another 15 years before autonomous features advance to the point they compel significant changes throughout the insurance industry. Even then, even the most aggressive of the companies pursuing fully autonomous technology acknowledge there will still be collisions.

Before a shakeout of the insurance business occurs, lawmakers, industry executives and consumers need to solve a key question – who will be held responsible when those collisions occur?

Executives from Volvo and Mercedes-Benz said last year that they accepted liability for crashes caused by their technology, but so far, other automakers haven't followed suit.

Whenever they arrive, Buffett sees their contribution to improved road safety being the latest in a long line of advances that have driven the death rates down. Those improvements have been brought both by better technology – and dedicated individuals.

"Generally speaking, the trend has been fabulous over the years," he said. "We have gone from 15 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles down to something close to 1 – you have got to give Ralph Nader credit for some of that. ... Cars have been made way, way safer. When you start making the driver safer, that will be a big, big jump, and that will happen some day."

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