Coming soon to a road near you: Self-driving cars.
In February 2012, Nevada became the first state to issue regulations allowing self-driving cars on the road; state lawmakers approved this step in 2011. Legislation paving the way for self-driving cars also is under consideration in Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii and Oklahoma.
On March 1, state Sen. Alex Padilla rolled up to California's state Capitol in a Google-engineered, self-driving car to announce legislation aimed at putting "autonomous" vehicles on the roadways of the country's most populated state.
“The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error. Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle is capable of analyzing the driving environment more quickly and operating the vehicle more safely. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce traffic fatalities and improve safety on our roads and highways,” Padilla said at a Capitol news conference.
Insurers will be 'leery' of technology
While self-driving cars hold the promise of improving traffic safety, they likely won't affect your auto insurance bill anytime soon.
"This is uncharted territory," says Tim Dodge, a spokesman for the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of New York, a trade group. "Insurance companies will likely be leery of this new, untested technology."
Auto insurance discounts for self-driving cars would be possible only after the vehicles established a track record of fewer and less severe accidents than traditional vehicles, Dodge says. How long would it take to compile that accident data? Three to five years, according to Dodge.
On a more positive note, self-driving cars never will be drunk, tired or inexperienced, says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. Drunk driving, drowsy driving and teen driving are three of the main causes of car crashes.
'A gradual technology walk'
While self-driving technology is being tested by tech giant Google, aerospace company Lockheed Martin and automakers like Audi, BMW, General Motors, Toyota and Volvo, it'll be awhile before "autonomous" cars hit the road. GM spokesman Dan Flores says it'll be "a gradual technology walk" from features such as vehicle alert systems that detect objects in a driver's blind spot -- systems that already are installed in many cars -- to technologies that let a vehicle do the steering.
"Semi-autonomous" car technology now on the market includes self-adjusting cruise control, lane-departure warning systems, pre-collision braking and self-parking, Padilla says. A completely autonomous car will require a system that can "see" around itself a full 360 degrees, using radar and other sensors, according to Flores.
Even once the technology is totally autonomous, a driver will have to be able to take over if something goes wrong. "It's probably not a reality that the driver can fall asleep while the car drives itself," Flores says.
John Hanson, national manager for environmental safety and quality communications at Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., says the self-driving technology will let seniors with physical challenges drive safely and let teenagers text safely behind the wheel. Self-driving technology is "based out of necessity," Hanson says.
What's down the road
Toyota demonstrated a self-driving Prius hybrid in 2011 at a Tokyo auto show. Meanwhile, GM plans this fall to launch the 2013 Cadillac XTS, which the automaker considers a significant step toward a self-driving vehicle, Flores says. And Google's self-driving cars have traveled more than 200,000 miles in California, says Anthony Levandowski, leader of Google's self-driving-car project.
However, self-driving technology will be developed well before laws and regulations are in place to authorize self-driving cars on U.S. roads, GM's Flores says. Predictions on when self-driving cars will be ready for prime time vary widely.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval sings the praises of autonomous cars. In July 2011, he became the first U.S. governor to ride in one of Google's self-driving Toyota Prius hybrids.
“It’s incredibly impressive,” Sandoval told the Nevada News Bureau. “It accounts for all the safety issues. You have the ability to know who is front of you. You have a 360-degree consideration of everything around you. It even tells you when a crosswalk is coming up.”