Could frivolous lawsuits stop self-driving takeover in US?

A Google self-driver at company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
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They've long been the stuff of science fiction, but a new study predicts that once they come to market in the near future, autonomous vehicles will rapidly become a popular reality.

"Emerging Technologies: Autonomous Cars—Not If, But When" predicts that by 2035 self-driving cars, or SDCs, will account for half of the vehicles sold in North America. Sales worldwide will reach about 11.8 million, according to IHS Automotive, which prepared the report. The consulting firm predicts that almost all vehicles will offer an autonomous mode by 2050.

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Officials at Nissan Motor recently promised to put its first autonomous vehicles into production by 2020, and a number of other makers have since made similar announcements. The IHS report notes that the first generation of these vehicles will in fact require a human to sit at the ready in case the technology develops a problem—much like an aircraft autopilot. But it anticipates that truly independent SDCs requiring no human involvement will begin to be offered by 2030.

The study predicts that demand will rise as the technology improves.

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Not everyone is so confident, though, and there's an ongoing debate about where autonomous vehicles will first come to market.

Andy Palmer, executive vice president at Nissan Motor and its global products czar, recently cautioned that because of the litigious nature of the American market, manufacturers "might" have to steer clear of the U.S. unless legislators take steps to protect the industry from a flood of frivolous lawsuits.

AutoNation's December sales up 6% vs. industry's 1%
AutoNation's December sales up 6% vs. industry's 1%

Proponents say that the irony is that autonomous vehicles could yield major reductions in collisions, injuries and highway fatalities.

"As the market share of SDCs on the highway grows, overall accident rates will decline steadily," said Egil Juliussen, principal analyst for autonomous driver-assisted systems, who co-authored the IHS study. "Traffic congestion and air pollution per car should also decline, because SDCs can be programmed to be more efficient in their driving patterns."

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There are other issues to overcome if the IHS forecast is to prove accurate.

Even proponents of the technology acknowledge major improvements in software programming will be needed to handle the various challenges a human motorist might face on the road. Sensors and computing systems must become more powerful and robust.

And there's even the matter of cybersecurity, especially as future SDCs will likely tie into vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-roadway communications networks to track traffic, weather and construction.

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Though Nissan's Palmer told the goal is to make autonomous technology "affordable," the new study cautions that the vehicles will likely carry a $7,000 to $10,000 premium over similar, but conventionally operated, products in 2025. But it also anticipates the cost penalty will dip to $5,000 by 2030 and just $3,000 by 2035, taking advantage of the same sorts of economies of scale that have driven down prices of consumer electronic goods such as TVs and smartphones.

By CNBC Contributor Paul A. Eisenstein. Follow him on Twitter @DetroitBureau or at