PhotoA RAND Corporation study finds that the advantages of self-driving cars outweigh the disadvantages, assuming that issues including privacy and insurance liability can be resolved.

The researchers said that cars and light vehicles equipped with self-driving -- or "autonomous" -- technology will likely have fewer crashes, better energy efficiency, will emit less pollution and will cut costs associated with congestion.

It quotes the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety as finding that nearly a third of all crashes could be prevented if all vehicles had forward collision and lane-departure warning systems, side-view (blind spot) assistance and adaptive headlights. And it notes that as of March 2013, Google had logged more than 500,000 miles of autonomous driving on public roads with its driverless car without incurring a crash. 

"Our research finds that the social benefits of autonomous vehicles -- including decreased crashes, increased mobility and increases in fuel economy -- will outweigh the likely disadvantages," said James Anderson, lead author of the study and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to provide increased mobility for the elderly, the disabled and the blind. The costs associated with traffic congestion could be reduced because riders could do other tasks in transit.

Fully autonomous cars also could improve land use in several ways. Currently, about 31 percent of the space in the central business districts of 41 major cities is dedicated to parking, but autonomous vehicles would be able to drop passengers off, and then drive themselves to remote, satellite parking lots. The technology also might reduce car ownership and promote ride-sharing.

Who pays?

PhotoAll's not clear sailing, though. Besides the need to address liability and privacy issues, there's the little matter of who reaps the economic benefits of self-driving technology -- which is really another way of saying, "Who pays?"

Adoption of hybrids has been slow, because consumers are skeptical that the fuel savings will be enough to justify the higher cost of hybrid cars. The situation is likely to be even more stark with autonomous cars.

Yes, they could pollute less, ease congestion, free up parking spaces and so forth but by and large, the fruits of those benefits aren't bestowed on the individual car owner but on society at large, leading the RAND researchers to suggest that a subsidy of some sort may be needed, just as hybrids now benefit from a federal tax credit and state and local tax breaks in many localities.

Then there are the more dire risks. A single bug in the computer code that controls the vehicles could lead to a rash of crashes. Hackers could break into the system and purposely cause cars to collide -- or direct them all to converge on a single location. The White House, maybe?

There's also the possibility that the ease and convenience of autonomous cars would lead people to travel more, which could increase fuel consumption, pollution, climate change and so forth.

The study, intended as a guide for state and federal policymakers, notes that several states (Nevada, Florida, California, Minnesota) as well as Washington, D.C., have created laws to regulate the use of autonomous vehicle technology. Other states also have proposed legislation. Unfortunately, this could lead to a patchwork of conflicting regulatory requirements that vary from state to state, which could undermine potential benefits, Anderson said.

The study also notes that car manufacturers will need to build fail-safe systems that can detect when they are malfunctioning or not receiving accurate data.

All of this could mean that the technology will simply be expensive for widespread adoption in the near future, Anderson and his team conceded.

They included these recommendations:

  • Policymakers should avoid passing regulations prematurely while the technology is still evolving.
  • Distracted-driving laws will need to be updated to incorporate autonomous vehicle technology.
  • Policymakers should clarify who will own the data generated by this technology and how it will be used, and address privacy concerns.
  • Regulations and liability rules should be designed by comparing the performance of autonomous vehicles to that of average human drivers and the long-term benefits of the technology should be incorporated into determinations of liability.

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