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Aging Well

Self-Driving Cars for the Elderly, Disabled, & Blind

Self-driving vehicles have the potential to provide increased mobility for the elderly, the disabled and the blind, according to a study done by the RAND Corporation, a non-profit think tank. However, the study also points out that while the autonomous vehicles offer the promise of significant benefits to society, they also raise several policy challenges, including the need to update insurance liability regulations and privacy concerns such as who will control the data generated by this technology.

A release from RAND quotes lead author James Anderson as saying, "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." The study, intended as a guide for state and federal policymakers, explores communications, regulatory challenges and liability issues raised by autonomous vehicle technology.

Anderson and his colleagues reviewed the current literature on the subject and conducted interviews with 30 stakeholders, including automobile manufacturers, technology companies, communications providers, representatives from state regulatory agencies and others. The team suggests that a guiding principle for policymaking is to encourage the technology when the facts indicate clear societal advantages over the capabilities of the average human driver.

Nevada, Florida, California, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. have created laws to regulate the use of autonomous vehicle technology. Other states 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.

Cars and light vehicles equipped with this technology will likely reduce crashes, energy consumption and pollution, as well as cut costs associated with congestion. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 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 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. In addition, 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.

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