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Dwelling on the future of driverless cars has become something of a cottage industry among technology and automotive gurus.
Everything from when the vehicles could finally be available for consumers to the insurance implications have steered the national conversation in lively directions. What we know, at this point in the evolution, is that it's going to take much more research and testing before autonomous vehicles are seen as safe enough to satisfy transportation officials and attract a mass-market.
Google, Tesla Motors and some of the traditional automakers are busy with their own prototypes and routinely talk about how fast everything is progressing. Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder, recently predicted, perhaps optimistically, that his company could unveil a commercial vehicle as early as 2017. Mercedes-Benz has mentioned 2020 as a more realistic date. Tesla's Elon Musk has the target even further out, around 2023, according to news reports.
The car insurance impact could be enormous if such vehicles mean much fewer accidents. As insurers balance their actuarial tables to reflect a drop in liability costs, analysts say they'd likely have to pass savings to policyholders. And who could be held responsible for any problems caused by self-driving cars? Manufacturers -- including those behind the complex technology at the core of these bold new machines -- would probably become, at least in part, the focus of lawsuits.
But all this is speculation. And some of the speculation heads in very interesting directions. Here are a few of the more dramatic predictions of what could happen in a world brimming with robot cars.
1. They may be used for terrorism and help criminals
Some researchers, including IHS Automotive, have warned that the technology of autonomous vehicles could be hacked by criminals to override safety features. Most alarming was a report in the Guardian detailing how the FBI fears terrorists might try to hijack the cars and use them as weapons.
In the report, which was based on unclassified but restricted documents, the Guardian said the FBI worries that terrorists could fill a vehicle with explosives and guide it toward a target. "Autonomy … will make mobility more efficient, but will also open up greater possibilities for dual-use applications and ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon than it is today," according to an assessment attributed to agents working in the FBI's Strategic Issues Group.
Beyond terrorism, everyday criminals would have more freedom to shoot at police pursuers if they didn't have to navigate getaway vehicles, the report noted.
On the plus side, the FBI believes these vehicles could lower the high number of accidents in which first responders are involved. "The risk that distraction or poor judgment leading to collision that stems from manual operation would be substantially reduced," according to the report.
Further, the bureau suggests that tailing suspects should be improved with driverless cop cars. "Surveillance will be made more effective and easier, with less of a chance that a patrol car will lose sight of a target vehicle," the report states.
2. They may bankrupt cop budgets
Police departments across the country, especially smaller ones, often depend on the income they gather from ticketing motorists. In fact, about 41 million people a year are hit with speeding tickets, with more than $6.2 billion in fines, according to statistics gathered by the U.S. Highway Patrol.
But if self-driving cars don't make highway mistakes -- developers expect them to be able to eventually detect stop lights, speed limits and other road warnings -- then tickets for running red lights and going too fast could become obsolete. It's unclear how this could fully affect law enforcement, but there have been various reports over the years linking a department's budget to ticket revenue.
In a well-publicized case last year, a local television news station reported that Atlanta officials tied pay raises for police to the amount of ticket income officers could generate. City officials denied the claims.
3. Glitches may turn them into zombie cars
There's always the chance that a glitch in the vehicle's complex sensors could lead to accidents, deaths and other problems. A malfunctioning robot car could end up lurching down a highway aimlessly or, worse, plow into another vehicle or pedestrians.
James Anderson, a senior behavioral scientist at the non-profit Rand Corporation, said in a recent study that manufacturers will need to design systems that recognize when a sensor is not transmitting correct information or no information at all. Besides eliminating bugs - not easy to do -- fail-safes will have to be in place to prevent disasters, he added.
4. People will trick them out to be hotel suites on wheels
The Rand report also poses that once the fatigue of driving is erased from the equation, people may opt to travel farther - and with all the comforts of home. "Autonomous cars may shift users' preferences toward larger vehicles to permit other activities," says the report. "In theory, this could even include beds, showers, kitchens or offices."
5. Kiss car romance goodbye - no one will love them
Americans have always put their cars on pedestals, admiring and pampering them. But if robot cars are mass-produced under strict performance and design guidelines, each one looking just like the next, then where's the lyricism, the romance?
Automotive analysts have long pointed out that many car lovers find one or a few models to obsess over, with their infatuation growing stronger over the years. Would they be so devoted to driverless vehicles that are more likely to be as anonymous as they are autonomous? Jason Siemens, a southern California collector of older Ford Mustangs who frequently exhibits them at local car shows, just laughs at the notion.
"I love Mustangs because they have character and history and are very fun to drive," he says. "The way you describe one of these (autonomous) cars, they just sound boring. I like that they may be safer, but I have absolutely no interest in them."
6. They will kill the classic road trip genre
The fabled "road trip" may also lose its special appeal when friends who usually share time behind the wheel are expected to become passive passengers in a driverless universe. Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" doesn't sound as charismatic re-imagined as "In the Backseat," suggests the Rand report.
"The lures of the open road are very different if no driver is necessary. For example, the frenetic power of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" depends, in part, on the epic cross-country drives that it chronicles. The book may lose some of its emotional power if driving becomes a rarity, pursued only by the eccentric or poor."
7. People won't own cars anymore
Some industry watchers believe autonomous cars will provide a new model of transportation that will give people little incentive to own their own vehicle. "Under this 'Uber' like scenario, the same autonomous vehicle could be called upon for the morning commute by a number of individuals with laddered arrivals, while the vehicle could remain 'on duty' for errands during the day as needed by others," says Vincent DeAugustino in his Keefe, Bruyette & Woods analyst report.
Benefits of this futuristic model include more car-pooling, less traffic and emissions. "In our view, these are great societal benefits if Americans can stomach a new definition of car ownership and the freedom it affords," writes DeAugustino. "Urban Millennials are displaying some willingness to migrate away from this cultural American hallmark, so there's some viability to this thesis, which would significantly reduce the role of personal auto insurance."
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