To the average consumer, self-driving cars can seem like something out of “The Jetsons,” but techies and car enthusiasts alike know autonomous vehicles, like objects in rearview mirrors, are closer than they appear.
Ford and Volvo recently turned up the heat on their rivals in the race to release autonomous cars to the highway.
Ford unveiled a self-driving research car – a modified Fusion Hybrid – in December 2013. The automaker says its technology will reduce congestion on highways, correct driver errors, trim fuel costs and, of course, cut collisions when it's released in 2025.
Volvo created chatter of its own with the announcement it will unleash 100 autonomous vehicles on selected roads around Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2017. The automaker and the Swedish government will use the 100 cars to track potential economic benefits, consumer confidence, traffic flow and passenger safety.
The announcements from Ford and Volvo could serve to prod competitors to join efforts from other autonomous car developers, including presumed leader Google, which has a fleet of fully autonomous Priuses that have racked up more than 300,000 miles (483,000 km) during the past two years and says it will release its technology in 2018.
Nissan promised in August to deliver the first "commercially viable" self-driving system by 2020; and General Motors, Audi, BMW, and Tesla among others, also have autonomous vehicles in development.
With so much talk, it's likely that at least one of the fully autonomous models actually will make it to market by the end of the decade or at least shortly afterward. But that talk doesn't address an obvious question: Will consumers buy the notion of cars they won't actually drive?
It's a legitimate question. Slightly more than 82% of respondents to a recent AutoInsurance.US survey said they wouldn't purchase a self-driving car. The primary objection? Nearly 41% expressed safety concerns, while about 15% feared the price of the vehicles would be too high.
Those worries can be overcome with time, of course, especially as prices stabilize and consumers see how the cars function and actually make highways safer.
But one other objection to owning autonomous cars won't go away: Many people simply enjoy driving. More than a quarter of respondents cite, to steal a Volkswagen marketing slogan, farfegnugen – the German word for driving pleasure.
Still, all isn't lost. Most people hate their daily commute, and that's a place where self-driving cars present great potential. More than 68% of survey respondents say that's how they most likely would use an autonomous vehicle. Eventually, the prospect of sleeping, snacking, entertaining themselves and even working on the way to work could convert many a dedicated driver to self-driving vehicles.
The change in how people commute constitutes just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how autonomous cars could impact society. Fully self-driving cars potentially could affect a wide array of industries, including automakers, auto insurers and driving services such as taxis.
Autonomous vehicles also could have a big impact on city planning and transportation departments. This technology could create safer highways and drastically reduce car accidents, drunken driving and even road rage.
But for now, there are still many unanswered questions surrounding self-driving vehicles, including those revolving around the topic of ethics.
Another major concern within the auto-insurance community is what happens when there is a crash. Where will liability fall? With the vehicle's computer? The owner of the vehicle? Or possibly the vehicle's manufacturer? Or will these cars be so safe that they make car insurance obsolete?
Many other questions must be answered. From privacy concerns to the potential of computer hacking to what happens to the Department of Motor Vehicles, many discussions are sure to arise. Although three states have passed legislation addressing autonomous vehicles, few specific regulations exist.
With Google's promise of 2018 a mere four years away, consumers and regulators still haven't entirely warmed up to the idea of autonomous vehicles. It's an easy bet that the regulators will catch up with the manufacturers, and once the vehicles prove their safety and more questions get answered, it's likely that more drivers will buy in.
How many? It depends, of course, on whom you ask. But the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predicts that as many as 75% of the cars on the road in 2040 will be autonomous. Call it farfeg-riding.
Peter Caldwell is a contributor to the AutoInsurance.US blog. AutoInsurance.US is a resource center for insurance consumers and car owners across the country