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The benefits and drawbacks of autonomous vehicles, courtesy RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation (not to be confused with Rand Paul) has released a study entitled “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers.” The study, which can be downloaded for free, analyzes the benefits and drawbacks of the emerging technologies behind self-driving cars.

It’s always important to remember that the development of a technology itself is not the only thing that needs to happen. The environment around the technology, such as the legal environment, often has to change. In my industry, it’s technically possible for an automated fingerprint identification system (AFIS) in state A to talk to an AFIS in state B, even if the two systems come from different manufacturers. However, until the two states complete various agreements for the transfer of the data and the resulting increases in workload, AFIS data transfer isn’t going to happen.

Returning to autonomous vehicles, the RAND corporation notes that there are several benefits to the technology. In addition to increasing mobility for people who cannot drive today, the study asserts that the accuracy of autonomous vehicles over human-driven vehicles will result in a decrease in accidents. This also solves parking issues in urban areas, since the cars don’t have to park next to your workplace; they can go off and park somewhere else, kind of like how valet services work.

However, there are drawbacks:

Because the technology would decrease the cost of driving, congestion might increase, rather than decrease.

Occupations and economies based on public transit, crash repair, and automobile insurance might suffer as the technology makes certain aspects of these occupations obsolete.

The latter point is important, as Jason Calcanis reminds us, and as Goodyear France’s most recent hostage crisis reminds us.

Now some may doubt the findings, since it runs counter-intuitive to anecdotal evidence to think that a “robot car” could be more accurate than a car with a “real driver.” As I have previously noted, Loren Feldman prefers human-driven cars to autonomous ones, and raises valid points about possible infection of driverless cars. And, of course, cars can be hacked.

However, the RAND Corporation study is a real study, and I can cite clear evidence that the study is a real study. Look at the study’s first recommendation:

Further research should be conducted to better quantify the likely costs and benefits of the technology and, just as importantly, to whom they will accrue.

When a study states that further research is needed, you know that it’s legitimate.

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