On Monday, five days after Toyota reached a record-breaking 1.2 billion dollar settlement with the Department of Justice regarding sudden uncontrolled acceleration allegations, RAND Corporation’s James Anderson held a congressional briefing to present information for policymakers and to discuss the benefits of — you guessed it — self-driving vehicles.

Tanya Snyder of USA Streetsblog, summarizes the briefing in an article titled “How the Self-Driving Car Could Spell the End of Parking Craters:”

At a Congressional briefing this week, the RAND Corporation’s James Anderson, author of a recent report on the prospects for autonomous vehicles, said he is convinced that while there are advantages and disadvantages to driverless cars, ‘the societal benefits exceed the costs.’

The best possible scenario involves a fleet of shared driverless cars and the elimination of private vehicle ownership. Cars would be in constant use, so the amount of land reserved for parking could be greatly reduced. Even if driverless car technology comes on the market soon, however, that version of the future may never arrive.

Driverless cars will park themselves, reducing the need for parking space. Also, they will accelerate and brake more efficiently than humans, increasing fuel efficiency. The cars will have sensors that will allow them to drive closer together, possibly decreasing congestion. Safety “is considered to be the most clear-cut benefit of self-driving cars.”

Car “autopilot” technology is partially here, with some automated functions like cruise control in current working form on public roads. Several automakers have been working with companies like Google, and have progressed to a point where it is time for policymakers to figure out who would be liable, for example, for a crash. Ozy.com writes:

Sorting out who would be responsible for such an incident is one of the hairiest challenges for policymakers, and their success depends on lawmakers getting that policy right.

Not only are there few answers so far, but there isn’t even clarity on who is in charge of setting the rules — and that’s setting up the sort of Washington turf wars that are famous for grinding things to a halt.

Policymakers will need to delve into the specifics soon, given the progress automakers and companies like Google have made in advancing driverless cars. Audi spokesman Brad Stertz says his company could roll out the first iteration of driverless cars by 2019.

The RAND Corporation research publication authored by James Anderson and titled Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers says that full-scale commercial introduction of “truly autonomous (including driverless)” cars is predicted to occur within five to twenty years. Florida, Michigan, California, Nevada and DC already have some policies in place for testing these vehicles on public roads. The vehicles were featured in Las Vegas at CES 2014, the technology trade show.

There are also potential drawbacks. For one thing, driverless cars are data guzzlers, and who has access to the data and how it will be handled is yet unknown.

John Gould, of the Wall Street Journal explains that the self-driving car will collect an enormous amount of information using technology both inside and outside the vehicle: cameras, radar, lidar (remote sensing using laser), sonar, GPS, bumper sensors, vehicle-to-vehicle wireless communication, rooftop sensors, side sensors, and GPS sensors on the antenna.

The driverless car is a rolling data farmer, which may be wonderful in theory but a privacy and cyber security nightmare in reality. Other potential drawbacks include liability and regulatory issues.

For the Rand study, “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.” One voice, however, seemed to be oddly missing: the average commuter who drives a car. I emailed a DC resident and asked what he thought of driverless cars. He said:

I still think driverless cars are a pretty long way off. Driving to work in DC, so much of the commute involves instinct and intuition. You have to be completely comfortable merging into tight traffic doing 60 from a standstill, unless you want to end up as a road rage statistic. There are too many intangible data points that the brain is taking in all at once to make multiple split second decisions in a very short amount of time. Cars can’t see around corners, but the imagination often can, and this is what keeps an experienced driver from getting into a wreck. At the very least, a driverless car might be able to navigate city streets, but it’ll be one of the slowest, most annoying drivers on the road. I think this one’s got some time before it’s ready.

There are some things that humans can see, that an automated vehicle may not, like this stop sign:

Paducah stop sign 006

What are your thoughts on driverless cars?

Related: RAND guide for policymakers full pdf here