The fleet of classic DeLoreans that Uber sent tooling through San Francisco this weekend provided just a small glimmer of techno-fantasies to come. And while years may pass before cars can actually fly, we can comfort ourselves knowing that Google's new line of self-driving robo-vehicles is already in the offing.
Over the next 15 months, the Mountain View tech giant will put finishing touches on Priuses that can drive us to work themselves, using a complex system of lasers, sensors, and GPS devices to supplant the human hand. For anyone who grew up watching the George Jetson fly to work in a saucer-mobile, that might sound like a winning proposition. At the very least, it will allow us to check e-mail and text with impunity on our way to work.
It's also created yet another regulatory nightmare, right on the heels of the rideshare battles.
Although Governor Jerry Brown signed a Senate bill allowing Google to test its robo-cars on public roads in October, state legislators have deferred the nuts-and-bolts regulations over to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which needs to codify its own rules by January 1, 2015.
The big question now, according to Tully Lehman, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network for California, is where culpability lies if an auto-powered vehicle runs a red light, or plows onto a sidewalk, or blindly exceeds speed limits. "In our current system, there has to be a name on the policy," Lehman says. "So on my car it says me -- it doesn't say 'Jeep.'"
He adds that the prospect of non-humanoid drivers has flummoxed insurance providers, who now bear the burden of assigning blame, after a powerful lobby of tech companies and auto manufacturers managed to absolve its members. With Nissan, General Motors, and Volkswagen all planning to unveil robo-cars by 2020, insurance regulators face an increasingly vexing conundrum, as California legal journal The Recorder reported last week.
But that still doesn't clarify whether the vehicle owner or software developer is at fault when one of these auto-whips causes an accident, Lehman says. Nor does it solve the problem of setting insurance base rates, which have heretofore derived from driving records and number of miles driven annually. Good drivers may lose their "good-driver" discounts in an era of autonomous vehicles.
Add to that new speculations that Google will enter the car-hire market, in light of recent reports that its venture capital arm, Google Ventures, threw $258 million into the ride-share start-up Uber. While it's not exactly clear what a potential partnership would look like, the prospect of Google double-dipping in multiple areas of regulatory ambiguity has raised eyebrows.
It's also stirred a lot of excitement among technophiles. Lehman says the whole puzzle is making his job feel very Jetson-ish.