Feds on self-driving cars: Proceed with caution

By , Posted on 06 June 2013

Google self-driving carSelf-driving automobiles are already being tested on roads in three states and industry watchers say we'll see a lot more of them in the coming years. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is gearing up for this eventuality. The agency just issued a preliminary robot car report  and expressed support for the technology but recommended cautionary measures be taken as driverless cars are integrated into the mainstream.

The NHTSA recommends that licenses for driverless cars be issued for testing purposes only. In the future, the "drivers" in the autonomous cars should receive special training so they are prepared to jump behind the wheel if there's trouble.

Five levels of vehicle automation and summarized plans for research to ensure safety issues are examined are also included in the policy report.

A lot of the technology outlined in the NHTSA's automation levels already exists in new model cars, for example, in the form of crash-avoidance features like lane-departure systems, which kick in to maneuver the car to avoid collisions if the driver fails to react.

The safety group also issued safety recommendations to states that have already authorized self-driving vehicles for test purposes. California, Nevada and Florida currently have laws that allow self-driving cars on the roads, but only for research and testing.

While driverless cars seem so futuristic it's hard to imagine we'll see them in our lifetime, some industry watchers say eventually drivers may pay much lower rates and may buy insurance from manufacturers when they purchase the car.

"Most experts expect that they will be safer -- to the point that car insurance rates could fall by 80 percent," writes Des Toups, editor of CarInsurance.com.  

Others are advising car insurance companies to start preparing now for driverless cars, citing the example of Kodak's demise. By the time the iconic company jumped into the digital camera game, it was too late to catch up and remain a viable business.

In an epic series on self-driving cars, innovation technology consultant Chunka Mui outlines the impact the autonomous cars will have on insurance. Some highlights include:

  • With Volvo predicting it will have crash-free cars available by 2020 and Google backing its own technology development in the sector, robot cars may be here much sooner than anyone thinks.
  • A shift in liability from drivers to manufacturers because accidents are more likely to be caused by technology glitches than human error.
  • Car makers may start offering insurance, for example, by extending car warranties or by bundling it with new auto purchases.
  • With human error out of the formula, underwriting will be less important, so insurers' bottom lines will rely more on how well they manage other aspects of the business such as customer relationships, claims processing and distribution.

What do you think of self-driving cars? Would you buy one? Let us know.

Related articles:

Is your car insurance going the way of the landline?

Nevada bets on robot cars, California's dreamin' of them

Driverless cars coming to a road near you?

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Des Toups

Des Toups

Managing editor

Des Toups is a writer, editor and expert on insurance, cars and personal finance. He has written extensively about all three for national publications such as MSN and major newspapers such as the Seattle Times. He has been quoted about insurance issues in The New York Times, USA Today and Kiplinger's.

Email: dtoups@quinstreet.com

Follow him on Twitter @destoups

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