Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Auto insurance and driverless vehicles

In the movie Minority Report, Stephen Spielberg has an extended sequence showing cars of the future being assembled and how they drive themselves. It's pleasing how well a film made some ten years ago has been predicting the future. The multitouch computer interfaces are here as are the retina scanners. Facial recognition software is routinely used at airports and other safety-critical locations, and we are now carrying pads around on which we can read the latest newspapers and books. Strangely enough, the driverless vehicles are also on our streets being tested. That might surprise you. Except the states of California and Nevada have already passed laws making it legal to have these vehicles drive you. So what's the problem?
In a sense, we have most of the technology already available off-the-shelf. Cameras can be fitted to give 360 degree vision. Radar can tell the vehicle when anything else is moving nearby. GPS transponders tell the vehicle exactly where it is. Computers can easily be configured to talk to each other so that each vehicle can be told when there's something else nearby on the road. We have voice recognition software which will allow owners to input the desired destination and route preferences. Many of the standard vehicles are already drive-by-wire, i.e. electronic rather than mechanical links to the accelerator, brakes, and so on. All we need are the software packages to interpret all this data and translate it into instructions for the vehicle. For the record, in March, Google announced that its driverless car has traveled over 200,000 miles on roads in all types of traffic conditions. There has not yet been an accident. Indeed, so confident is Google that it has begun discussions both with government and the insurance industry.
The theoretical advantages are enormous. A computer never takes its "eyes" off the road to answer a cell phone or comb its hair. It never drives too close to the vehicle in front. There's no reckless overtaking or speeding. If this technology was adopted across all our roads, the number and seriousness of traffic accidents would be significantly reduced. Given that more than 30,000 people are killed on our roads every year, this would be a major improvement. With the number of accidents falling, insurance costs would fall and premium rates could be reduced. Except we all know technology can break down. There's a world of difference between trusting the PC on your table at home to keep your personal information safe and allowing the same PC to drive you at 70 mph down a busy interstate.
It seems the discussions with the auto insurance industry have been going well because Google recently announced a more positive testing program for the software. Instead of this being ten or more years in the future, it has lost its speculative nature and could be approved in the next two or three years. The question for you as individual drivers is whether you will surrender your hands-on control to a computer in return for significant reductions in auto insurance rates. It's actually a very good deal and only dangerous if a few reckless people insist on continuing to drive themselves or it amuses hackers to take over vehicles and stage crashes.

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