Wait, who's driving that car?

  • Article by: TONY BIZJAK , Sacramento Bee
  • Updated: October 4, 2012 - 5:25 PM
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Sen. Alex Padilla of California and California Gov. Jerry Brown arrived in a driverless car at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., for the Sept. 25 signing ceremony for the bill allowing driverless cars to be test-driven on public roads.

Photo: Gary Reyes, San Jose Mercury News/MCT

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A futuristic law allowing companies to test driverless cars on California roads is being heralded by tech aficionados and some safety advocates as a breakthrough moment.

But it has the auto insurance industry saying: Wait, what? If no one is driving, and the car gets in a crash, who is at fault? The car occupant, who may be sitting with his head down doing a Sudoku puzzle? The car manufacturer? The other car?

And, if driverless cars really are safer, does that mean anyone who buys one should get a safe (non)-driver discount rate?

Driverless cars, which run on finely tuned global positioning and route mapping technology, are billed as potentially safer because they eliminate the human error factor.

For now, though, someone must be in the driver's seat in test cars to grab the wheel, just in case.

But will those cars really be safer if they are scooting around on streets alongside cars still driven by people?

Or is it possible we will all someday be banned from actually driving our cars?

It's mind-boggling.

"I never thought in my lifetime I'd be talking about this," said Tully Lehman of the Insurance Information Network of California, which represents many of the state's top vehicle insurance companies.

His companies don't oppose the concept, he said.

"Insurers have always embraced technology where it reduces accidents," he said. "Seat belts, air bags, anti-lock breaks, anti-sway technology. But the common factor has also been you're still driving."

State Office of Traffic Safety officials say they too are curious about the technology but have not yet studied its potential impact on California.

On the one hand, Google is already out there, testing its driverless cars. The tests are limited but suggest the technology is doable.

You program where you want to go and the car takes you there, reading the road and objects around it, and reacting to them.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between limited test drives with a few cars and a day when thousands or more of them hit the road.

"We think the industry has a long way to go to see what comes of the concept," Chris Cochran of the Office of Traffic Safety said. So "we haven't put a lot of thought into it yet."

The good thing, he said, is, unlike cellphones, the idea of the driverless technology is that it will be used only if it makes driving safer.

But that brings up the question of safer for whom? Would the Legislature agree to allow people who are legally blind, for instance, to be the sole occupant of an autonomous car?

Cochran said that question, and all the others, will take time to answer.

In the meantime, don't be shocked if the guy in the car next to you doesn't have his hands on the wheel.

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