"15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance!" So goes the GEICO gecko's standard sales pitch, which has helped the car insurance division of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) grow its sales by 41% over the last five years.
As Berkshire's low-cost strategy shows, consumers really do care about saving money on car insurance.
On the other hand, Americans also love to drive our cars. You can have my car keys when you pry them from my cold, dead hands! Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) is working on a self-driving car prototype, as are many of the world's largest automakers. But their fancy technology won't matter if it takes away all the free-spirited fun of putting the pedal to the metal.
But what if you can save a ton of money on car insurance by switching to a self-driving car?
That just might be the ticket for taking car-based autopilots to the consumer mainstream. A recent survey by CarInsurance.com found that only one in five Americans would be willing to hand their car keys to a computerized driving system, but 90% would at least consider the idea if it came with a serious insurance discount.
We're not talking about some piddly 15% deal, though. What works for GEICO might not be enough to change your mind about autonomous cars. The survey's game-changing price break was a massive 80% discount.
This is where many of my readers will tune out. Why would any insurance company in its right mind agree to such a ridiculous discount for taking away control from a human and handing it to a heartless computer? After all, 75% of the CarInsurance.com respondents said they are better drivers than a computer, and 75% wouldn't trust an autopilot to take their kids to school.
But they forget about human error and limitations. The computer system would have a 360-degree field of view, never fall asleep or get drunk, be able to react to what's happening within microseconds, and never get distracted by the kids fighting over an iPad in the back seat.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 95% of auto accidents are caused by human error. Even if you allow for computers messing up once in a while, a Google researcher estimates that self-driving cars could be at least 90% safer than today's hand-controlled death traps. More than 33,000 Americans lost their lives to car accidents in 2012 -- and every year since 1946. Drop the fatality rate to 3,000 a year, and the highways would suddenly kill fewer people than drowning, fires, or war.
So it's only natural that insurance rates would have to drop if driving became that much safer. Saving 30,000 American lives a year is worth real money. Getting that far might take a couple of decades, since the technology isn't perfect yet. But we will get there, thanks to the combined efforts of Google, the auto industry, and perhaps some skunkworks operations I haven't heard of yet.
Toyota has been working with Google from the start and opened its own test lab for self-driving cars last November. Nissan already promised to have a consumer-level autopilot ready by 2020. Ford isn't ready to take the driverless plunge yet, but is working on technologies to assist a human driver. You know, much like the anti-lock brakes, one-click parallel parking systems, and cruise controls we have today, just taken to the next level.
I can't wait to get a full autopilot so I can nap or read behind the wheel. And the faster I get to drop my insurance bill by 80%, the better.
What do you think? Share your view on driverless cars in the comments box below. I know emotions can run high, so please try to keep it civil.