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Google to profit from self-driving cars by decade's end -- analyst

Self-driving cars represent a $200 billion opportunity, says analyst Gene Munster, and Google will be a major beneficiary.

One of Google's driverless cars.
One of Google's driverless cars.

Google stands to rev up substantial revenue from self-driving cars.

The search giant is likely to gain whether it creates the hardware for self-driving cars or simply license the necessary software to automakers, Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster said in an investors note released Tuesday. Either way, revenue from this burgeoning sector should start to ramp up for Google before the decade is over.

"We believe the utility of reducing auto deaths and idle time in traffic add up to a $200+ billion opportunity in autonomous vehicle technology," Munster said. And the analyst sees Google as the "best positioned Internet company over the next ten years" to profit from the technology.

Touting the benefits of driverless cars, Munster noted a study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that cited around 32,000 deaths in 2011 due to car accidents. That number showed a significant drop from prior years, but the analyst clearly believes it could be further reduced through self-driving cars.

Another study from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that Americans wasted 5.5 billion hours in 2011 stuck in traffic, resulting in $121 billion in lost time and fuel. Driverless cars could potentially cut down on all those traffic jams.

Self-driving cars are currently legal in Nevada, California, and Florida. Munster believes Google is testing a "fleet" of driverless cars in those states. The NHTSA also has been researching self-driving cars with an eye toward establishing safety measures and overall policies.

Of course, self-driving cars present a thorny legal issue. If a driverless car gets into an accident, who's to blame? The driver? The automaker? The developer of the technology?

That answer could depend on the level of automation. The NHTSA has issued five levels of automation for driverless cars. The first level means no automation, while the fifth indicates total automation, with varying degrees among the other levels.

Clearly more testing needs to be done and more issues worked out before driverless cars can take off. But Munster feels the government is on the case.

"The NHTSA has issued recommendations for states interested in autonomous vehicles concerning the safe testing of driverless vehicles," the analyst said. "We believe the government is acutely aware of self-driving cars and seems to be embracing the technology."