The university and the car maker will take the lead on the mechanical development of the new Ford Fusion Hybrid, which will come equipped with four rooftop 360-degree infrared sensors that scan the surroundings millions of times a second and report back to a 3-D map. This is comparable to the way a bat uses its sensors to navigate at night.

State Farm will "provide insight from many years of claims experience and our knowledge of driver behavior and know-how to help make the vehicle safe," says Csanda.

Battle of the 'black box'

As advanced technology infiltrates a car, the most important piece of the puzzle will be the "black box" positioned under the steering wheel that monitors the driver's activity. Almost all new cars have them, and most simply record what happens prior to and during a crash. But this monitor, and who has access to it, will become even more important in the future.

It will be able to tell whether the driver or the car's computer was in control of the vehicle at the time of a crash, something insurance companies, car makers, law enforcement and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will want to know. Another possible argument after a crash: How long did it take the computer to transition control of the car to or from the driver, and what happened in those few, possibly fatal, seconds.

A future black box would also monitor the "health" of the computer that drives the autonomous car. If an owner fails to maintain it or repair a known malfunction, he or she could be held responsible for a computer failure.

Trying to keep pace

Driverless technology could outpace the roads it will travel on and the laws that will govern it, as well as public acceptance. A recent survey by Chubb Corp. showed that 70 percent of Americans preferred driving themselves, only 4 percent wanted a driverless car and just 22 percent would even let their families get into an autonomous vehicle.