NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Driverless cars. Once you get past those two words together in a sentence, the idea starts to seem more and more appealing. Take a nap on the way to work. Sip your latte while your car purrs along safely. Play Scrabble with your kids on the way to the beach.
As it turns out, that’s only marginally true.
Jurisdictions like California, D.C., Florida, Michigan, and Nevada that have legalized driverless cars all aim to keep you squarely in the driver’s seat, vigilant as ever.
“Under D.C. law, there has to be a licensed driver in the car, that driver has to be in the driver’s seat and there has to be a manual override feature,” says John B. Townsend II, manager of government and public affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic. “When anti-lock breaking was first used, for instance, people had a hard time adapting, because, for a long time, you used to have to pump your breaks. With anti-locking systems, brakes are smarter, even if you’re still in control—and that kind of evolution is a better metaphor for what automated cars will mean.”
In other words, the latte scenario is still in play, but you’re still on the hook even if you’re only blithely “driving.”
The question of personal safety and driver responsibility is also one that insurance companies are looking it. Even if, as Townsend points out, driverless cars are widely thought to be far safer than conventional cars, putting a number around how that will impact premiums and discounts is another story.
“A lot of people are trying to figure out what’s involved [with driverless cars] and we’re studying it, too,” says Chris Tasher, director of public relations for Geico. “The policy is always going to be about how to protect drivers. Our mission won’t change; it’s just how we carry out that mission.”
When asked about how an insurance company may insure drivers who aren’t actually driving in the classical sense, Tasher says that Geico and others are still too far upstream in the process of assessing the bottom line for car owners to say definitively.
“Premiums may not be affected to the extent that people are anticipating, but [things like] the components of the vehicles may be more expensive,” she says.
How much more expensive? Several news outlets have reported on a 2014 IHS Automotive study (subtitled, in part, “Not If, But When”) that forecasts a $7,000 to $10,000 bump up on the sticker price by the time driverless cars roll out in a decade’s time. By 2035, driverless cars will only have a $3,000 bump on the sticker price. So, more affordable over time—as you probably guessed they would be.
Sticker price and insurance aside, safety is still, for Geico and others, the pressing question that needs to be answered before all others. There are anti-lock braking systems, sure—and they have improved braking times and reduced accidents, but they are still manual operations at heart.
Of course, the current spate of cars that brake automatically, however, offer insight into just how safe driverless cars can be. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has, for the third year, released a report detailing how automatic braking has improved highway safety. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of automatic braking cars IIHS has identified as having a “superior” rating climbed from 5% to 15%. The number of “advanced” automatic braking systems rose from 6% to 19%, and the number of cars possessing a “basic” rating jumped from 20% to 27%.
And, that rate of improvement is the reason why 2025 is really the closest horizon for a broader market to evolve for driverless cars. Testing takes time, which is probably fine. The joy of actually driving is ours for a little while longer.