Autonomous vehicles are the focus of major companies in many different fields (auto manufacturers such as Ford, GM and Tesla; technology companies like Google and Microsoft; and even the ride-sharing giants, Uber and Lyft). The potential disruption is so great, it’s no surprise that everyone is talking about them today. It’s also understandable that there are camps vigorously for and against this new technology, with varied projected timelines for availability, ranging from on the road in 2018 to autonomous cars will never happen.
The polarizing responses are understandable because this can be an emotional issue; giving so much of our individual control to a machine sounds alarming, and the potential change to business and society is so significant. This makes it difficult to really understand the impact and may lead some to just avoid the implications by saying, “it will never happen.”
In any case, whether these fears are warranted, society is not quite sure what to think about this rapidly advancing technology. The first barrier seems to be safety, or at least, a fear of driving on the road with autonomous vehicles. Let’s dig into the specifics of the safety of autonomous vehicles vs. human drivers.
According to Gartner, an autonomous vehicle “can drive itself from a starting point to a predetermined destination in “autopilot” mode using various in-vehicle technologies and sensors, including adaptive cruise control, active steering (steer by wire), anti-lock braking systems (brake by wire), GPS navigation technology, lasers and radar.” Multiple companies are testing these vehicles on their own test tracks, as well as public roadways today.
To try to determine the safety of autonomous vehicles, we’ll look at NHTSA statistics for crashes involving property damage, injuries and fatalities, then examine a number of studies and reports of crashes involving autonomous vehicles from various manufacturers.
At first glance, the statistics don’t look great for human drivers. According to the NHTSA, human error accounts for 94 percent of automobile crashes. In 2015, the NHTSA reported 35,092 fatalities and 2,443,000 injuries in traffic crashes in the U.S. (These numbers rose 7.2 and 4.5 percent from 2014, respectively.) This works out to 1.12 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and 78 injuries per 100 million VMT. 2015 also saw 4,548,000 crashes categorized as “property damage only.”
While accidents and traffic incidents involving autonomous vehicles tend to make national headlines (such as the death of a Tesla driver using autopilot mode or the autonomous Uber vehicle that ran a red light this year), it’s important to keep in mind that these incidents are still relatively isolated, unlike human-driver crashes which rarely make headline news due to their frequency. This isn’t surprising when you consider that drivers logged over 3 billion VMT in 2015, while autonomous vehicles have yet to reach the 100 million VMT mark.
Interestingly, a 2015 study from the University of Michigan concluded that autonomous vehicles may be more likely to be involved in an accident than a human-driven car. However, the statistical data only had a 95 percent confidence level, and perhaps more importantly, the autonomous vehicle was not at fault in any of the accidents in the U of M study.
If the data above doesn’t lead you to a firm conclusion about the safety of driverless cars, don’t worry — you’re not alone. The RAND Corporation agrees, commenting that autonomous vehicles would need to log hundreds of millions (if not billions) of miles before we can reliably compare their safety to human-driven cars. And we haven’t even touched on the ethical and legal implications of widespread autonomous vehicle adoption (such as how liable a manufacturer will be if a vehicle injures or kills a pedestrian while in autonomous mode).
However, these issues and more will need to be addressed soon, because autonomous vehicles are continuing to cruise on public roadways. The technology and capabilities are advancing rapidly, and I am confident autonomous vehicles will be on the road in the not too distant future. Sure, safety needs to continue to evolve, and it will. Perhaps more importantly, we all need to be prepared to adapt to this coming disruption. Think about the early 1900’s when we transitioned from horse and buggy to the automobile — I am sure there were dire predictions of the auto not being safe and it will never replace the horse and buggy. In less than 13 years the transition to the automobile was all but complete. What if in 2025, autonomous vehicles have taken over the roads? How will that impact our infrastructure? Our laws? Our transportation capabilities? How will it impact your business? For added perspective on this, there is a good video from 2016 that provides additional context on the advancing technology and potential disruption. It is worth a view and consideration on how your business may be impacted by technology change in the next decade.
As for the safety of autonomous vehicles, I think the question will be — when are they safe enough? When will they be on the roads with other conventional vehicles, and how fast will they be able to evolve? How fast will all of us humans be able to adapt?