Will Driverless Car Technology Ever Completely Eradicate Driving Fatalities?
Autonomous driving cars, driverless cars, have long been the Holy Grail of automotive engineering (closely followed by flying cars).
First visualized on the big screen by the 1989 Batman movie, the idea of a driverless car has been restricted to dreamful musing.
Now thirty years forward, this dream is closer to reality than it ever was.
Driverless cars are today being extensively tested with Waymo (a Google project), GM, Daimler, and Ford at the forefront of this revolutionary technology. The driverless car market is estimated to be about fifty four billion US Dollars and is expected to grow ten times over within the coming seven years to $556.67 billion.
As with every innovation in human history, the invention of driverless cars brought its own problems in tow. These weren’t simply technical issues; we were faced with moral dilemmas too.
How will these self driving cars handle a crash? Most importantly, will we be able to completely eradicate fatalities on the road?
Those in favor of self driving cars tout that they will be safer and that driverless fatalities will be less than the current figures. On the other hand, you have naysayers claiming that the numbers are inflated and wholly inaccurate.
Human controlled driving is actually quite safe in the United States now. There is roughly a single death for every one hundred million miles driven. Self driving cars will obviously have to do better than this so it is hardly a surprise that driverless car companies are saying that the cars will be safer. But, how much safer? Will they be one hundred percent safer? Or ten percent safer? And is it morally acceptable to wait for the technology to develop further so that it can meet the high safety levels although that means allowing more people to die in the mean time?
Which is the truth? What experts say about driverless cars.
An insightful article by McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm in the United States concluded that, “By midcentury, the penetration of AVs (autonomous vehicles) and other ADAs (advanced driver-assistance system) could ultimately cause vehicle crashes in the US to fall from second to ninth place in terms of their lethality ranking among accident types,”.
The article says that human deaths can be cut down by up to 90% which is a bit off the 100% rate, but that could simply mean the technology has not been developed to the sufficient standards.
Aside from the cost of lives, vehicle accidents also have a massive impact on America’s economy. Every time a single person is killed in a car accident, eight individuals are hospitalized while one hundred are treated and discharged from hospital emergency rooms. The cost incurred due to crashes on the roads caused a dent of two hundred and twelve billion US Dollars in America’s economy (data from 2012). If we take that year as a comparison, advanced driverless cars can erase that loss or reduce accidents by ninety percent, which would save approximately one hundred and ninety billion US Dollars.
But how many accidents have driverless cars committed so far?
On May of 2015, there were forty eight vehicles on Californian roads. Out of those forty eight, four were involved in accidents within the initial six months of the year. That amounts to about one accident for every twelve vehicles – a significant stat – but delving into it deeper shows that these accidents were the result of human error. Three of these four vehicles were operated by Google’s Waymo but all three accidents were due to human error. Chris Urmson, who was heading the self driving department stated “Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident,”. The fourth vehicle of the lot was operated by Delphi Automotive and was not in driverless mode when the accident happened.
Additionally, the movement towards safer roads has helped make the roads safer. A report by the Atlantic has shown that new seatbelt laws and much improved airbag technology have helped reduce the yearly death toll from about sixty thousand in 1970 to thirty two thousand seven hundred and twelve in 2013.
A favorite statistic among those in favor of self driving cars is the data out of institutes like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who noted that ninety four percent of serious car accidents could be attributed to human error. Senator John Thune remarked “In 94 percent of these cases, human error is a factor. One day, self-driving vehicle technology should help drastically reduce this tragic loss of life.”.
What this means for the car and driver industry?
The common method of thinking here is, if you take humans out of this formula, you remove ninety four percent of accidents. Simple, right?
Well, no. That is far from the case.
To start with, the figures quoted were never meant to be used in the context of autonomous vehicles. There is also the fact that the three most common reasons for fatalities on the road are driving under influence, not using seatbelts, and speeding – none of which will go away after you get rid of the driver. For instance, someone in a hurry might just disable autopilot so that he or she can get there earlier. Many also do not realize that autonomous vehicles are not as great at perceiving the environment as humans – at least at this stage.
Furthermore, a study by The Casualty Actuarial Society showed that forty nine percent of vehicle accidents had (at minimum) one limiting factor that can disable the auto driving tech or at least impair it. The study went on to say that fifty one percent of fatal accidents have happened on rural roads; rural roads that are unlikely to support driverless vehicles in the near future. Driverless vehicles are more likely to appear on low speed urban roads where ride sharing services are more common.
Check out this page from The Casual Actuarial Society to learn more in depth analysis.
So, what is the bottom line? The safety of an autonomous vehicle can not be predicted by the standards of today for the reason that the factors at play during an accident now might not be a factor for accidents in a future of driverless cars.