Google wants driverless car testing in

When it comes to self-driving cars, the future keeps stepping on the gas.

The latest development comes from Google's efforts to accelerate the testing of its autonomous vehicles in California. The Guardian reports that the company has created a "Matrix-like" virtual simulation of part of the state's road and freeway system designed to challenge the cars in various situations. Google, according to the Guardian, hopes California safety officials will use the digital testing rather than road tests to eventually certify the vehicles for use in the real world.

The Guardian says it obtained a letter sent by Google to regulators earlier this year suggesting that its digital landscape is at least as rigorous as regular road testing sites. "Computer simulations are actually more valuable, as they allow manufacturers to test their software under far more conditions and stresses than could possibly be achieved on a test track," wrote Ron Medford, Google's safety director for the driverless vehicle program.

But state officials, so far, aren't riding along. They've rejected the company's efforts to explicitly allow computerized models in California's testing guidelines, Katelin Jabbari, a Google spokesperson, told reporters. "The driving simulator is a relatively new tool -- we didn't have anything like it a few years ago," she told the Guardian. "It's now a critical part of how we test and refine our software."

Google unveiled its latest autonomous vehicle prototype during a huge media event in June. The tiny two-seater has no steering wheel or gas pedal. It does have a "go" button and "panic" stop button, cruises at about 25 mph and is significantly different from prior Google robot cars that had steering wheels and allowed humans to assume control. At the time, Google said it hoped to have 100 of them built by the middle of next year as experimentation continued, though the company says the bubble-shaped vehicle won't be commercially available for some time.

That model operates through an array of electronic sensors that, according to Google, can see about 600 feet in all directions. The company says the front end will be made from a foam-like material in case the technology failed and the car hit a pedestrian. Google added that the electric cars could be used in low-speed driving environments like crowded downtowns or on corporate campuses and enclosed residential communities. People could use their smartphones to summon the vehicle, which would then take them to a destination. The cars could also be used as self-driving taxis in cities and elsewhere, according to the company.

Steering wheel or no steering wheel, that's the question

In perhaps a setback to the new prototype, California also recently ruled that any self-driving cars must be fitted with a backup steering wheel, for situations where "immediate physical control" is required.

California regulations are clear: driverless cars must be tested under conditions that closely reflect everyday driving, which has usually put them on temporarily closed public roads or on private test tracks. California laws mandate that manufacturers testing autonomous vehicles will be required to carry $5 million in coverage, whether through surety bond or proof of self-insurance, in addition to traditional California car insurance state minimum coverage levels.

In defending its virtual simulation, Google says it has intricately mapped 2,000 miles of California highways in its Mountain View research labs. During testing, the vehicle's software is tasked with navigating this matrix, which features typical obstacles, including digital pedestrians and other cars. However, Google conceded that the program does not yet include other potential road hazards, such as extreme weather like heavy rainfall, or reflect driving nuances in other states.

"Google will need to collect a lot more infrastructure and digital data about other parts of the country and internationally," Chris Schwarz, a senior research engineer at the US National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) in Iowa, told the Guardian.

Eventually, the company hopes to map much, if not all, of the state's 172,000 miles of roads. Google says progress will likely be affected by the state's on-going response to its testing vision.

Google isn't alone in the development of self-driving vehicles. Many automakers are researching autonomous technology, with Mercedes-Benz and GM's Cadillac line apparently at the forefront. And Tesla Motors recently said it should have a version of a driverless car within three years.

Would you buy a self-driving car?

Although the idea of owning an autonomous vehicle is gaining traction with consumers, a CarInsurance.com survey of 2,000 licensed motorists found that only about 20 percent would opt for one if they became available -- 80 percent admitted they aren't comfortable with the technology just yet.

The numbers got better when people were asked how they'd respond if the vehicles caused fewer accidents, which might drop insurance rates. Then, more than a third said an 80 percent cut in premiums, which has been predicted by some auto insurance analysts, would make it "very likely" that they'd buy a driverless car.

Celent, an international consulting firm, says in a report that crashes could drop by nearly 90 percent if driverless cars prove safer and become the norm in coming years, causing coverage premiums to fall.

Celent researcher Donald Light suggests auto liability insurance premiums might fall 20 percent by 2017 compared to 2012 levels, with comprehensive rates dropping 30 percent. By 2022, liability premiums could fall 60 percent to 80 percent from 2012. He projects rate reductions would accelerate after 2018 as advanced safety technology further takes hold.

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