How Safe Are Autonomous Vehicles?

Unsplash/Toine Garnier

In June 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration announced a series of meetings to discuss the impact of automated vehicles (AVs) on US roads. Initial studies have shown that autonomous vehicles improve traffic flow as well as reducing energy usage; if 5% of cars on the roads are self-driven then total fuel consumption will be reduced by up to 40%. However, recent reports of accidents involving AVs highlight potential safety concerns, how safe are self-driven cars?

Addressing Safety Concerns

The American public has safety concerns around AV with 54% of Americans surveyed in 2017 stating they were somewhat or very worried about the development of driverless vehicles. Figures show that a pedestrian is killed by a car every 90 minutes in the US and until March 2018, all the drivers were human. However, a pedestrian being struck and killed by a self-driving car hit the headlines and undermined confidence in AVs. AV Experts are of the opinion that the technology has the potential to be safer than human drivers. This is because according to the National Safety council, 90% of fatalities in motor vehicle accidents on American roads in 2017 were caused by human error.

AV Testing

It is inevitable that at some point, self-driven cars need to be taken out of the lab and tested on the roads but what can be done by companies such as Google, Uber and Tesla to ensure this testing is as safe as possible. Self-driving cars have already been put through many miles of road tests and AVs that are being tested have safety drivers. They are responsible for monitoring diagnostic messages that appear on an interface embedded in the vehicle dash and events of interest are then tagged for subsequent review. The safety driver is also responsible for stepping in and taking over the controls in an emergency, for example in a situation where a pedestrian unexpectedly steps out in front of the car. Maintaining driver attentiveness, allowing time for reaction and enough time to change mode are key to testing safety.

The American public are unsure about the safety of AVs and their confidence is further undermined by reports of accidents. AV testing companies are confident in the safety of the vehicles and the testing that they are undergoing but it may take some time to convince the American public.