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Driving into a future without brakes: autonomous cars
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Driving into a future without brakes: autonomous cars

We are fast approaching a future in which phrases like "pedal to the metal" and "hitting the brakes" may be as quaint as "Whoa, Nellie."

Google's recent release of a cute, buglike autonomous car prototype took center stage on the Internet over the past week. Unlike past models, this one is the real thing, a car totally driven by computers. It also sparked a lot of attention in other circles, too. At last week's annual Automotive News Congress, the big debate was whether autonomous cars will be viable in less than 10 years or more than 10 years, with experts split on their opinions. Meanwhile, over in Great Britain, they are rewriting the Highway Code to allow Google's driverless cars on roads.

Are we ready for a car with no steering wheel, no accelerator pedal and no brake pedal? Liz Gannes of Re/code gives us a closer look under the Google car's hood, suggesting that the cute and friendly looks were designed to "...head off any concerns of malfunctioning robots hurtling you toward imminent doom." As to the issue of when, she notes:

As of May 20, California requires a test driver to be in a vehicle and able to take over the controls, but Google is expecting a follow-up regulation later this year that will allow manufacturers to apply for permits to operate fully autonomous vehicles.

Google wants to get these cars on the streets ASAP. The company plans to start testing them in Mountain View, Calif., later this summer, Urmson said. He hopes to build at least 100 prototypes over the next two years, and get them into the hands of volunteer drivers -- or nondrivers, as it were -- as soon as the system is evaluated to be safe.

In Avoiding Squirrels and Other Things Google's Robot Car Can't Do, Alex Davies of Wired reports on some of the "can do" and "can't do" features of the Google cars. Here in New England, our bad winter weather may pose a serious obstacle: "Bad weather doesn't just make traction control tricky, it change how the car sees the world around. Snow on the ground and water kicked up by other cars messes with the spinning laser that sits on the roof, while fog limits how far the radar can see. "

Priya Anand looks at what would happen to insurance in a driverless world given that most studies attribute about 90% of all accidents to human error. "It's possible that more of the liability will shift to the manufacturer," says Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute. "Increasingly, over time, the driver is going to become more and more passive."

One thing is clear: the future of autonomous cars is not a far-distant thing. Insurers and agents alike will need to retool for this driverless world. Be sure to check out our prior post, Get ready: autonomous cars will be here sooner than you think – and they will reshape the auto insurance market. We're sure there will be many more.


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