Have you ever dreamed of a robot -car that could navigate a traffic snarl while you watched a movie or even took a nap in the backseat?
That fantasy is tip-toeing toward reality. Nevada, known more for visions of leggy showgirls than highway visionaries, recently became the only state to allow "autonomous" vehicles on its roads. Under the new law, robot researchers can now apply for special driver's licenses that allow them to test robotic cars on state roads.
The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) stipulates that although the cars are driverless, there must be two operators in the vehicle when they are being tested on open roads. And to let other motorists know a robo-car is nearby, the driverless vehicles have red license plates.
"Nevada is the first state to embrace what is surely the future of automobiles," Bruce Breslow, Nevada DMV director, says in a press release. "Nevada is proud to embrace this emergent technology and looks forward to sustaining partnerships as the technology evolves."
The Nevada DMV partnered with Google, carmakers, testing pros, police, universities and car insurance companies to create the safety laws for testing autonomous vehicles, Breslow says in the statement. (See our related article "Cars that predict red-light runners coming soon?")
The news blog Mashable reports that Google received a patent for its driverless car system late last year and has been testing it on a Toyota Prius, with plans to make the system available to carmakers so it can be installed in any vehicle.
Besides Google, Caltech and other research groups are trying to develop robo-cars, which have systems that incorporate radar, lasers and video cameras for navigating highways.
California is also active on the robotic vehicle front. State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) recently introduced a bill (SB 1298) that would allow the California Highway Patrol to establish guidelines for autonomous vehicles to be tested and operated in California. Padilla says such vehicles could be much safer than those driven by people.
"The vast majority of accidents are due to human error," he told the Los Angeles Times. "Autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce traffic fatalities and improve safety on our roads and highways."
It's hard to say what the insurance ramifications are right now because it's so early in the game, says Craig Beattie, an analyst for Celent, a research and consulting firm specializing in insurance. He does suggest that researchers and builders of driverless cars are, at this point in their evolution, assuming most of the financial responsibility for any accidents or potential claims brought by other motorists. But that could change dramatically if the cars become commonplace and traditional insurers are approached to take on much of the liability.
"This will be a significant adoption issue [in the future] as manufacturers would not want to keep this level of exposure, on mixed roads with human and robot cars," he says. "As adoption grows, it seems likely that the car will be insured by the owner, with the car insurance rates related to the capabilities of the vehicle, the standard of driving of the robot, the version of the software and hardware, and the level of maintenance."
Beattie adds, "Since responsibility for maintenance and product updates lie with the owner, it seems likely that some liability would remain with them. The question is -- who will own these robot cars in the future?"
Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California, says, "Hypothetically," autonomous cars might be safer and also help insurers decide who is to blame in a crash.
"Today, claims departments get statements by drivers to determine fault based on recollection of the drivers," he says. "With autonomous cars, [it may be] possible to remove that element. " Instead, they'd rely on stored video, sensor readings of speed, the current status of the vehicle, braking pressure required to stop the vehicle and attempts at maneuvering or alerting to avoid an accident, says Lehman
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