NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Driverless cars are everywhere and nowhere.
For a variety of reasons including perfecting the technology, state regulations and potential legal liability, the billions of dollars the auto industry is spending researching self-driving, or autonomous, cars is unlikely to lead to American roads being filled with such vehicles any time soon, even though companies like Google (GOOG) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class C Report show the public videos of its concept cars zipping down the road with no one behind the wheel.
However, investors don't have to fear that their money is being spent on a pipe dream as a great deal of the gear created for an autonomous car is already in use. These features include adaptive cruise control, where the car uses radar to keep pace with surrounding traffic, accelerating and braking to keep the vehicle safe, to the ability to self-park.
"We are going for a long-term goal of an autonomous car, but the technology being developed for that can be used today. It's important for people to realize that the auto industry has been working on these technologies for years and years. It spent $102 billion on research and development last year," said Dan Gage, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM).
Gage could not break out the amount that is spent specifically on driverless technology from the overall R&D figure as it can be included in many different categories like safety.
At the 2015 International CES last week the auto industry showed off the optimistic side of the technology with Ford (F) - Get Ford Motor Company Report CEO Mark Fields saying he expects a car maker to introduce such a vehicle in the next five years; GM (GM) - Get General Motors Company (GM) Report has announced a driverless Cadillac could be just two years away; Audi has given rides to a select few in its A7 prototype autonomous car; and Nissan expects to launch its own such car by 2020. Despite these comments and advances industry insiders do not believe the nation is on the cusp of having its streets filled with driverless cars.
"I think the [manufacturer's] timeline is very aggressive, but at the same time the insurance industry is looking at the implications," said Mike Barry, VP of media relations for the Insurance Information Institute, an industry-funded organization dedicated to educating the public on insurance matters.
Barry said a great deal of equipment going into cars now, such as crash-avoidance technology, is already helping make them safer and there is a possibility that computer-controlled cars could be even safer, but safety is not the most important issue for insurers or the car industry.
"The biggest issue for us is liability," said Gage. "Who gets sued if there is a failure? Manufacturers would stand up if it's our issue, but what if it's Google's' software."
The AAM represents 12 major car manufacturers including Ford, GM, Mazda and Mitsubishi.
This is such a critical matter that Barry believes even getting insurance for a driverless car could be an issue.
"It could be conceivable that an insurer would not insure the car," he said, adding that it would not be a surprise if new companies came into being specifically to handle this new opportunity.
Not all insurers are looking at this technology in a negative fashion.
"We know that more than 90% of car crashes are due to driver error, and technology is likely to eliminate a great many of these crashes. As we see more of these technologies among our policy base, we will use our claims experience to determine appropriate adjustments in insurance premium," State Farm said in a written statement to TheStreet.
Not having insurance would be only part of an owner's problem. There is a chance there would be no place to drive as most states are still studying the problem and have not given their official thumbs up allowing them on the road. California has been the most progressive giving permission for autonomous vehicle testing permits to Google, Volkswagen Group of America, Mercedes Benz, Delphi Automotive (DLPH) - Get Delphi Technologies Plc Report , Tesla Motors (TSLA) - Get Tesla Inc Report , Bosch and Nissan.
Other states are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"NYS DMV has not made any comments or taken any official position on driverless cars," said Jackie McGinnis, Associate Commissioner at the N.Y. Department of Motor Vehicles.
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You can view the full analysis from the report here: TSLA Ratings Report
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.