Image: Car on road © Brand X, SuperStock

As carmakers roll the dice on an idea that could revolutionize driving, it's no surprise that folks in Nevada have become the first to join the gamble.

Last month, the Silver State authorized its Department of Transportation to create rules allowing driverless cars to travel Nevada roads. These vehicles take the steering wheel out of the hands of human drivers and turn over control to a combination of artificial intelligence software, sensors and GPS technology.

The concept of a driverless car may sound like science fiction, but it's closer to real-life fact.

At least five auto companies -- Audi, BMW, General Motors, Volkswagen and Volvo -- are testing driverless-vehicle prototypes.

And because this is a truly 21st-century idea, Google has been at the forefront of the effort. The technology giant has developed its own driverless cars that already have traveled thousands of miles in test runs. Google is so fired-up about the concept that it lobbied Nevada to pass the law sanctioning driverless cars, according to a New York Times report.

Most experts say it will be several years before driverless cars take the on-ramp into the real world. But when they do, expect the trend to sweep the nation.

This is one bit of cutting-edge behavior that is unlikely to stay in Vegas.

Car insurance and driverless cars

Supporters say driverless cars will be safer than vehicles driven by humans. Technology will keep the new cars at a safe distance from one another and eliminate common mistakes such as overcorrecting and excessive braking.

As a result, accident rates could fall dramatically. In theory, that should cause car insurance rates to sink in tandem.

But is that how it will play out?

Jean Salvatore, a spokeswoman at the Insurance Information Institute, says that once states allow driverless cars onto roads, "insurance companies are going to look and analyze the risk, and insurance will be made available."

Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance, says it's difficult to predict how driverless cars will affect insurance rates. But he says State Farm -- the nation's largest insurer -- is likely to write policies for the cars once they hit the roads. (Compare insurance rates on some 2,000 vehicle models here.)

"We're in the business of helping people to transfer risk to us, helping people take away the possibility of large losses of money," he says. "Our inclination always is to help people with that sort of thing."

Because driverless cars have no track record, the biggest challenge for car insurance companies will be measuring risk and pricing policies accordingly.

In the short term, driverless cars are likely to be rated like any new make and model -- neutrally, or in the middle of all cars "until we have greater information," Luedke says.