Answers to frequently asked questions about self-driving cars

Susan Ladika

As self-driving cars gear up to hit the highway in greater numbers, states either will need to step on the gas to get rules in place to govern them or pump up the few rules they already have.

So far, only three states – California, Florida and Nevada – have approved laws allowing for the testing of self-driving cars. And no one is sure when self-driving cars will be commonplace on the roads.

When will self-driving vehicles be available to the public?

Google, which has taken a leading role in developing these cars, is championing the cause of self-driving cars. Google co-founder Sergey Brin predicts they’ll be found more frequently on the road within the next five years.

Others have a more cautious view. Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS), has researched self-driving cars. He says it will be a decade before fully self-driving vehicles are available, but there will be baby steps along the way, as automakers build more automation into vehicles.

Cars already have self-driving features such as lane-departure warning systems, which alert drivers if they’re drifting out of a lane, and adaptive cruise control, which monitors the speed of the vehicle in front and adjusts it accordingly.

If advances in self-driving technology continue at the current pace, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predicts self-driving  cars will account for three-fourths of vehicles on the road by 2040.

Who can operate a self-driving vehicle now?

California, Florida and Nevada currently allow operation of a self-driving vehicle, but only for testing purposes.

In California and Florida, the law lets only contractors, employees and others permitted by the manufacturer to drive these vehicles. And both states require someone to be in the vehicle when it’s in operation, so he or she can take control if something goes wrong.

Nevada has the most detailed regulation of self-driving cars; state law requires two people to be in one of these vehicles when it’s on the road.

If you plan to operate a self-driving vehicle in Nevada, you’ll need a special endorsement on your driver’s license that lets you get behind the wheel, and you must have proof of insurance, says Kevin Malone, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

California is just beginning to discuss developing further regulations of these cars. It’s not clear when the new laws will be on the books, says Jan Mendoza, spokeswoman for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In Florida, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles has until February 2014 draw up recommend regulations for self-driving vehicles.

Here are answers to four other frequently asked questions about self-driving cars.

1. What happens if the vehicle gets in a wreck or is speeding?

In Nevada, you’re considered the driver if you’re operating a self-driving vehicle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re actually in the car or not. As the operator, you must obey all of the state’s traffic laws.

2. Who will be responsible if something goes haywire when one of these cars is on the road?

That’s one of the many lingering questions. People tend to think either the driver or the manufacturer will be held accountable if something goes awry, Smith says.

The real issue is how many people could be defendants in lawsuits related to self-driving cars, Smith says. Depending on the type of accident or traffic offense, the driver, the company that sold the vehicle, the company that designed and built it, the provider of various components or a host of others could be found at fault.

3. Who will regulate self-driving vehicles?

So far, only three states have any laws regarding self-driving vehicles, and Smith says many states are waiting for direction from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In October 2012, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the agency would begin conducting research on self-driving vehicles.

4. What will these vehicles mean for car insurance rates?

Lynne McChristian, Florida representative for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, says car insurance rates are based on data, such as your personal driving record, and historical trends, such as the number of auto thefts in your neighborhood. Because there’s no history with self-driving cars, it’s impossible to know how much it’ll cost to insure them.

More than 30,000 fatal crashes happened in the U.S. in 2010, down from more than 39,000 in 2005. Proponents say self-driving cars could go a long way toward further reducing the number of traffic deaths.

Reducing the number of car crashes also could trim car insurance rates, as fewer accidents mean lower insurance rates for all drivers, says Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Network of California.

If the number of accidents is reduced dramatically, Moraga questions whether there ultimately will be a need for car insurance at all.





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