Google yesterday unveiled its latest device: a completely driverless car. There's a lot of hype around the possibilities of such cars, but the latest development also underscores how much they're disrupting the way we think about about insurance, policing, and licensing.
The tech giant has been working on autonomous vehicles for five years, but the new prototype, which so far is unnamed but is described by Re/code's Liz Gannes as a "clown car" and "the lovechild of a gondola and golf cart," is a unique addition to the fleet.
Previous self-driving Google cars were retrofitted Lexus SUVs and Toyota Priuses that "don't actually drive independently," Gannes explains. "Every time they are sent out on the road they are carefully monitored by two Google employees who are ready to take control at any moment." This car, which was completely designed and built by Google, "has no such human safety net."
As such, the cars are structurally different. Google has long been seeking to reduce human error in driving— 90 percent of road accidents are the result of human error—so it removed the human-controlled components: a steering wheel and pedals. The prototypes are loaded with sensors that can deal with railroad crossings, indecisive cyclists, and construction congestion. In case of failure, it has "redundant systems for steering and braking." Unlike Google's other cars, which can handle highway speeds, the prototype (for now) tops out at 25 miles per hour, so it will do minimal damage if it bumps somebody with its plastic windshield and thick foam front-end.
What kind of impact will it have?
The prototype also indicates that Google now has a clearer vision of how autonomous cars will work for consumers. "I think the right model for most of the world will be not through vehicle ownership," Google co-founder Sergey Brin tells The New York Times. "These should be provided as services for the most part."
These types of vehicles may also affect the way insurance, law enforcement, and other industries work. In a recent book, The New Killer Apps, technology consultant Chunka Mui projects serious changes:
Auto insurers, which collect more than $200 billion in premiums each year in the United States, would initially see profits rise as accidents declined and payments to customers dropped but would eventually see something like 90 percent of premiums disappear. Health insurers would also have to give up revenue as car-related injuries plummeted. Governments would lose fines, because cars would obey all traffic laws, but police forces would need fewer officers on the road, and prisons would need less capacity as drunk drivers kept their freedom. Utilities would lose revenue because traffic lights would no longer be needed, and highways and streets wouldn't need to be lit—after all, the cars can see in the dark. Parking lots, which cover a third of the ground in some cities, would pretty much disappear, while freeing land and reducing property values. And so on.
This, of course, assumes a future in which all cars are self-driving. Even so, everything fails eventually, and when self-driving cars do crash, someone will be held accountable. David Booth of Driving offers two possibilities:
Either you, the driver, will remain ultimately responsible for the car even though it is in self-driving mode thus rendering your stint behind the wheel nowhere near as relaxing as promised. Or, if the automobile is to be truly autonomous, automakers would then have to accept liability, laws would have to be re-written and automakers would have to be charged with responsibility for whatever happens to their product, something they have challenged vociferously for the last century and a quarter.
Additionally, questions arise about who should be allowed to operate a driverless car and whether one needs a state-sanctioned license. Robohub on Monday released a reader survey that found 52 percent of people were opposed to youths under the legal licensing age from being alone in a car, while 62 percent and 58 percent respectively approved of no-longer-licensed seniors and blind people riding alone.
So far, only California, Michigan, Nevada, Florida, and the District of Columbia have passed any legislation on autonomous cars, and it's all pretty hands off. Florida, for example, "does not prohibit or specifically regulate the testing or operation of autonomous…vehicles on public roads."
Google anticipates that 100 of its prototypes will hit the road in California within a few months.