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Will driverless cars slash your auto insurance bill?

The idea of self-driving cars hitting the road produces a mixture fascination and anxiety in many Americans. But what if driverless cars could cut your auto insurance bill sharply?

Experts say increased safety benefits from self-driving cars could result in lower individual insurance rates. A recent study by RAND Corp. said if automated cars reduce the risk of accidents, there will be "a significant reduction in insurance premiums."

"So many accidents are caused by human error, if you reduce the human factor, it should cut down on accidents," explained analyst Laura Adams of Insurancequotes.com. "That will mean fewer claims and should reduce rates."

Google, Delphi self-driving test cars involved in crashes

Getting to a point where drivers benefit from such safety advantages is well in the future. Google (GOOG) will have the first public road tests this summer of driverless cars it built entirely itself after previously testing self-driving converted Lexus SUVs. Both versions of Google cars still have human drivers that can take control of brakes and steering. But legal and regulatory changes likely will move more slowly than the developing technology.

Here's how lower insurance costs may play out:

--The first autonomous safety features on regular cars may soon qualify the owners for insurance discounts. For instance, Volvo has introduced technology that can sense a pedestrian ahead at slow city speeds and hit the brakes. A wide variety of cars now offer features like adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance that hit the brakes if the car senses an imminent collision with the vehicle ahead. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class has an option for autonomous steering that can keep the car between lane markers . "It may take awhile to get these discounts," said Adams. "Insurance companies will want to have a data history and make sure these cars really are safer."

--More liability may shift to the vehicle's manufacturer. "For driverless cars with no manual option, you could argue that there is little or no need for owners' liability insurance and that it may be the manufacturer's sole responsibility," says Greg Isaacs, president of insurance comparison website CoverHound.com.

--While cars evolve slowly to fully autonomous driving, with some self-driving functions that the owner can turn off, a split insurance system might develop that puts liability on the manufacturer when the automatic function is on and on the owner when he or she is driving. Paying to insure your vehicle just part of the time should lower your bill.

Adams of InsuranceQuotes.com noted that such a system might resemble the insurance for drivers of the Uber car service, who use their own vehicles. When they're driving the car on an Uber call, they're covered by corporate insurance, Adams said. But when the drivers use their car for personal reasons, they must be covered by their own insurance.

In a split liability situation with some driver control, "manufacturers could offer insurance coverage options with the purchase of the vehicle," said Isaacs of Coverhound.com.

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