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September 3, 2019
As self-driving vehicles, also known as autonomous vehicles (AV), of all shapes and sizes become more advanced and deploy in more places, it begs the question: are they actually safe? And even if they are safe for occupants, are they safe for other vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians out on the roads?
Self-driving cars: safety stats
Some experts argue that self-driving cars are already significantly safer than human drivers, while others have concerns about them. While research is still limited, there are at least 46 corporations working on autonomous vehicles including Apple, Amazon, Audi, BMW, Cisco, Ford, General Motors, Google, Samsung, Tesla, Toyota, Uber, Volvo, and Waymo to name a few. The research and studies that are currently available show mixed results. In some cases, autonomous vehicles are showing promising safety results while other studies are troublesome. Consumer surveys show that the U.S. population is divided on whether or not self-driving vehicles are a reasonable consideration for the future.
- 56% of adults in the United States say they would not want to travel in a self-driving vehicle (Pew), and other survey show that only 21% of adults said they would be willing to ride in a self-driving car (Brookings)
- 54% of respondents in a Gallup poll said they would be unlikely to use autonomous self-driving cars if they were available on the roads today
- 62% would be uncomfortable sharing the road with self-driving truck (Gallup )
- Despite the poor ratings above, 55% of U.S. consumers surveyed said they would trust a driverless vehicle if research proved that it was safer than human-driven vehicles (ARM)
- An estimated $80 billion has been spent on research on self-driving autonomous vehicles between 2014-2017 (Brookings)
- A study in California showed that self-driving vehicles got into more crashes compared to conventional vehicles: 9.1 crashes per million miles driven, compared with 4.1 crashes per million miles, but self-driving vehicles weren’t responsible for any of the car crashes they were involved in (GovTech)
- Most crashes involving self-driving vehicles happened at low-speed, and autonomous crashes with injuries were minor compared with injuries sustained during conventional vehicle crashes. (GovTech)
As a recent RAND study highlighted, reporting on the safety standards of autonomous vehicles continues to challenge authorities and automakers. This is due to the lack of real world miles travelled by self-driving vehicles compared to conventional motor vehicles, and the focus from engineers on reporting on the progression of autonomous driving technology over the effects on public safety this new class of vehicles pose.
The data and statistics show that consumers are split when it comes to self-driving cars, and for good reason. The research, development, and data to support the safety of autonomous vehicles is still in early stages. Despite limited information, the money and research being invested by some companies is proving to be promising for the future of self-driving vehicles.
Pros and cons of self-driving cars
Naturally, there are both advantages and drawbacks to self-driving cars that affect every person on public roads, as well as the greater economy and stakeholders involved.
Dangers of self-driving cars
Self-driving cars aren’t perfect, and there are risks associated with using them. There may be additional issues we aren’t aware of yet because they aren’t fully developed or implemented. Many experts see the shipping industry as the first major use-case for autonomous vehicles on public roadways, which carries different potential hazards than sedans or taxis.
- Inability of most current infrastructure to respond to mistakes, errors, or deficiencies made by autonomous vehicle could lead to accidents.
- Risk of operators becoming distracted and relying on the self-driving vehicle to respond to unexpected situations, slowing down any required reaction time in the case of an incident.
- Cyber security threat of vehicles being hacked to steal the vehicle, its contents, or the owner’s personal information; or to be used in terrorism.
- Unexpected malfunctions with software systems that lead to accidents.
- Fully-automated driverless cars might risk people’s safety, as humans still need to be able to intervene in case of emergency.
Benefits of self-driving cars
Self-driving cars are expected to have a wide range of benefits, positively impacting everything from the environment to road congestion, as well as logistics and industry.
- Decreased instances of impaired driving - self-driving cars will reduce the risk of alcohol or drug impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel of a conventional vehicle
- Self-driving vehicles use systems that find the fastest route to a destination, leading to improved fuel efficiency. Improved fuel efficiency will reduce emissions and costs.
- Some studies are showing that autonomous vehicles are already out performing human-driven vehicles in terms of safety. According to the Department of Transportation and NHTSA, almost 94% of accidents on US roads occur due to human error, so self-driving vehicles could drastically reduce the number of crashes and fatalities that occur on the roads today.
Self-driving cars are a seemingly inevitable part of our future, and we need to try to make them as safe as possible for passengers as well as other people on the road.
When do you call a vehicle fully autonomous?
Completely autonomous vehicles, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), are still some way off. Many of today’s new cars are already using semi autonomous driving technology:
- Level 1 automation
Cars have some driver assistance systems such as cruise control, acceleration and lane changes.
- Level 2 automation
Advanced cruise control or Tesla autopilot like systems that allow the car to take safety actions like emergency braking. The driver needs to stay alert at the steering wheel.
- Level 3 automation
Still requires a human driver, but the car is able to perform some “safety-critical functions” in certain conditions. The handoff of control of the vehicle between human and automated driving system poses considerable risk.
- Level 4 automation
A car that can drive itself almost all the time without any input from a safety driver, but might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather.
- Level 5 automation
Full automation in all conditions.
The future of self-driving cars and safety
As automakers progress towards completely autonomous vehicles, it's apparent that self-driving cars are here to stay. Experts will continue to develop them, and barring some extreme accidents or issues, completely autonomous cars will become a normal part of our roads. Much work needs to be done before we reach that point, though, and we will continue to make self-driving cars, and the roads they operate on, safer for everyone.
- Connected trucks and vehicles have already made strides to improve vehicle safety by using technology that lets them communicate with other vehicles, drivers, and infrastructure.
- Autonomous commercial fleets, particularly trucks and shipping vehicles, are one of the major areas where driverless cars could have a tremendous economic impact by improving the way goods are transported throughout the country.
- Advanced GPS tracking software is a safety feature that may be incorporated into fleets of self-driving vehicles to help them operate correctly.
- Fleets of self-driving cars will likely have additional safety features, such as dash cameras that use artificial intelligence.
Despite the risks and unknowns, self-driving cars are likely to bring with them improved on road safety and they are constantly becoming more technologically advanced as we speak. Despite consumer doubts, fleet managers are already adopting safety technologies developed through research on self-driving cars today, and these will likely spread from commercial fleets through to broader consumer availability.