(Not) driving the car of the future: Driverless car technology

It sounds like science fiction, but driverless cars are on the verge of becoming an everyday reality on America's roads.

Such cars are built with sophisticated technology -- including sensors, radar and GPS -- that safely navigates the car to its destination. The car's occupants do not operate these vehicles, but instead they're merely are along for the ride. 

While completely driverless cars remain in the testing stage, several automated safety technologies -- ranging from front-crash prevention to lane-departure warning -- already have found their way into today's vehicles. And even more futuristic automations are on the horizon.

Widespread adoption of driverless technologies likely will have a significant impact on auto insurance rates, says Michael Barry, spokesman for trade group Insurance Information Institute (III).

But at this point, it is difficult to say exactly how rates will change, he adds.

"Because driverless cars currently have no track record, the biggest initial challenge for vehicle insurance companies will be measuring risk and pricing policies accordingly," he says.

1. Driverless cars.

Google and auto manufacturers such as Volvo, Ford, Audi and several others are working on cars in which drivers do not have to operate the vehicle at all.

In May 2014, Google announced it is building prototypes that are completely driverless, and that don’t include a steering wheel.

The company says it hasn't been able to develop technology that allows the driver to safely switch back and forth between automated and manual control.

However, other auto companies are still trying to develop cars that are driverless in most cases, but that also allow the person in the car to take control and drive in some situations. For example. Volvo hopes to develop a car with an "autopilot" feature that allows the driver to turn over driving duties to the car itself.

Driverless cars still haven't been approved for day-to-day travel on America's highways. But the U.S. Department of Transportation now allows testing of driverless cars on public roads.

To date, five places -- California; Washington, D.C.; Florida; Michigan and Nevada -- have passed laws permitting such tests.

2. General Motors Super Cruise system.

This technology -- which GM characterizes as a "semi-automated driving system" -- automates lane following, braking and speed under certain freeway driving conditions.

Unlike many other emerging driverless technologies, Super Cruise is road-ready. It will be available on the model year 2017 Cadillac vehicle, says Jennie Ecclestone, GM manager of engineering and safety communications.

Super Cruise works through a combination of radar, ultrasonic sensors, cameras and GPS map data. For example, forward-looking cameras detect lane markings on the road and other sensors detect road characteristics such as curves to keep the car centered in its lane.

GM says the system is intended to make driving easier during bumper-to-bumper traffic and on long trips. However, that does not mean the driver can take a behind-the-wheel siesta.

"When reliable data isn't available -- such as when there are no lane markings -- the system will prompt the driver to resume steering," Ecclestone says. "The alerts will be similar to the alerts we have now in our advanced active safety systems, such as the audible and visual cues."

3. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems.

These systems allow cars to "talk" to each other to help drivers avoid crashes.

In a V2V system, data is exchanged wirelessly between vehicles about their respective location and speed. When the technology senses potential danger, the driver is alerted and can modify driving behavior.

For example, a technology known as "left turn assist" warns drivers not to turn left in front of another vehicle approaching in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, "intersection movement assist" warns drivers that it isn't safe to enter an intersection due to traffic.

A report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that the technologies could cut these two types of accidents by more than half and save more than 1,000 lives per year.

The V2V applications now in development don't automatically take over driving functions -- such as braking and steering -- but merely provide warnings to the drivers.

In addition, V2V protects driver privacy, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), as no data collected by V2V systems can be used by law enforcement or private entities.

Currently, the U.S. government is considering making V2V systems mandatory in new cars and will make a decision about such a mandate by 2016, according to the DOT.

Driverless technologies and car insurance rates

Once fully driverless cars become the norm, accident rates should fall sharply.

"Driver error is the cause of approximately 95 percent of accidents today," Barry says.

But Barry says it's a mistake to assume that widespread use of driverless cars automatically will push car insurance rates lower. While the overall number of accidents should decline, the cost of an individual wreck may actually increase.

"When (accidents) do happen, they can be very costly," Barry says, citing the cost of replacing sophisticated computer technology and sensors, and other high-end equipment. 

The advent of driverless technology raises some fundamental questions for insurers, Barry says.

"Will the age, driving experience, driving history of the main user of the car and other traditional underwriting criteria be as relevant, or relevant at all?" he asks. "Will pricing still depend on how many miles the car is driven, and on what roads?"

In addition, liability concerns may shift away from the car's owner, Barry says, especially in situations where accidents result from vehicle hardware or software failure.

"The liability will likely fall on the manufacturer," he says. 

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