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Are Self-Driving Cars Safe?

By Alessandro Lori, PhD June 3, 2021

Updated: June 3, 2021

As commercial autonomous vehicles of all shapes and sizes become more advanced, it begs the question: are they safe?

Self-driving vehicles, loosely referred to as self-driving cars, also known as automated vehicles, are a top-of-mind topic for many industries. At least 46 corporations are already working on some form of autonomous vehicle, and they’re becoming an inevitable part of our future. Yet, the research, development and data to support the safety of autonomy is still in early stages, and consumer sentiment is divided.

There are both advantages and drawbacks to AVs that affect every person on the road, the economy as well as industry stakeholders. Let’s start with some basic questions – when do we call a vehicle as fully autonomous? What’s the impact of autonomy on safety? Can GPS tracking help with overall vehicle safety?

When is a vehicle fully autonomous? 

Completely autonomous vehicles for both consumers and commercial fleets, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), are still some way off, but many automakers of today’s new cars and trucks are already using semi-autonomous driving technology. Such automakers include Ford, Toyota, Waymo, and Tesla. Here are the five stages of vehicle autonomy:

  • Level 1 automation: Cars have some driver assistance systems such as cruise control, acceleration and lane changes.
  • Level 2 automation: Advanced cruise control or autopilot 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 driver but might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather.
  • Level 5 automation: Full automation in all conditions.

Dangers of autonomous vehicles

Self-driving vehicles aren’t perfect, and there are risks associated with using them. Many experts see the shipping industry as the first major use-case for autonomous vehicles on public roads, which carries different potential hazards than sedans or taxis, including:

  • The inability of most current infrastructure to respond to mistakes, errors, or deficiencies made by driverless cars could lead to motor vehicle crashes. 
  • The risk of a mototist 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.
  • The 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 with other road users. 

There remains a lack of real-world on-road miles travelled by self-driving vehicles compared to conventional motor vehicles. Until more is known, there will be continued concern for, and emphasis on, the safety of this new class of vehicles. 

Benefits of autonomous vehicles

AVs are also expected to have a positive impact on everything from the environment to road congestion. Benefits include:

  • Decreased instances of impaired driving, as 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, which in turn will help improve fuel efficiency and 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 (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (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.

Considerations for commercial fleets

Autonomous commercial fleets, particularly trucks and shipping vehicles, are one of the major areas where driverless technology could have a tremendous economic impact by improving the way goods are transported throughout the country. Within the fleet industry, automated technology that supports driver safety is advancing every day. For example:

  • 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.
  • Advanced GPS tracking software can be incorporated into fleets of self-driving vehicles to help them operate productively and safely.
  • Fleets of self-driving cars will likely have additional safety features, such as dash cameras that utilize artificial intelligence to help minimize accidents.

Fleet managers are already adopting safety technologies developed through research on self-driving cars, and these will likely spread from commercial fleets through to broader consumer availability. As the trucking industry joins the consumer automotive industry in fueling a self-driving future, it’s important to remember that, no matter the size or shape of the vehicle, safety is something that can never be fully automated.

How technology can help keep fleets stay ahead of the competition

As the pressure to stay ahead of trends and ever-evolving safety legislation is greater than ever, fleet managers must remain aware and actively involved in the day-to-day management of their drivers’ operating behaviors. Near real-time fleet tracking technology offers an easy way for businesses to improve safe driving habits.

Managers can remotely monitor driver behavior and be more vigilant in identifying signs of those drivers who might need coaching to improve their behind-the-wheel skills. The data can empower fleet owners and operators to champion a culture of safety; one that places equal responsibility on drivers to improve their time-honored operator skills.

When it comes to safe driving behavior, all the data in the world cannot replace a driver who is aware and focused on their own safety as well as that of the drivers around them. Each member of your fleet, from management to individual drivers, should aim to strike the right balance of automation, tracking and trust, supplemented with the right technology for your unique business.

For more tactical strategies to help improve driver and vehicle safety, download our ebook “5 Ways to focus on fleet safety.”

Alessandro Lori, PhD

Alessandro Lori, PhD, has 10+ years of experience in Web Software Development and Research in the field of data science and machine learning.

Tags: Safety

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