Autonomous vehicles are already navigating themselves along the streets and highways of our communities. By promising to remove human error as a factor in traffic accidents, these vehicles quickly gained support from government regulators. Meanwhile, industry leaders like Telsa, Uber, and Google continue to push the technology, and consumers appear to be on board as well. Analysts predict as many as 10 million driverless vehicles on the road by the end of the decade. Are these vehicles ready to make our roadways safer, or will they create even more risk for motorists?
Industry Hype vs. Media Skepticism
It seems everyone has an opinion about the safety of driverless vehicles. Tesla Motors, the electric car maker based in Palo Alto, is perhaps the most vocal proponent. Given how this $35 billion company is so heavily invested in the new technology, their position is hardly surprising. According to the company:
“Self-driving vehicles will play a crucial role in improving transportation safety…[f]ull autonomy will enable a Tesla to be substantially safer than a human driver.”
In the same October 2016 press release, Tesla includes a dashcam video of one of its vehicles in action. The vehicle travels down busy streets, avoids pedestrians, and drops off its occupant before proceeding to parallel park itself. Rock music accompanies the video, suggesting hands-free driving is not only safe, but fun.
Media outlets seem more inclined to emphasize the dangers of self-driving cars. Consider all of the news coverage last February, when a Google vehicle struck a city bus. After seven years and 1.3 million miles on the road, it was the first time one of the self-driving vehicles was determined to have been at fault in causing an accident. The vehicle was barely moving at the time of the crash and no one was hurt. Nonetheless, the story immediately made headlines around the world.
Public Opinion is Split
For its part, the public has yet to decide whether autonomous vehicles present a greater safety risk. A national survey conducted this summer by the polling firm Morning Consult revealed that people are evenly divided on the subject:
Self-driving cars will reduce accidents
and auto-related fatalities:
Strongly agree 13%
Somewhat agree 22%
Somewhat disagree 23%
Strongly disagree 23%
Don’t know / no opinion 19%
The degree to which media coverage of high-profile crashes (like the Tesla fatality earlier in the summer) may have affected the results is unknown. However, it is interesting to note that in the same survey, 57 percent of people reported being “somewhat worried” or “very worried” by the fact that self-driving cars are expected to be widely available within the next decade.
Here is What the Scientific Community Says
Researchers come down on both sides of the debate over driverless car safety. But if there is one thing they all agree on, it is that more data is needed.
Further testing of driverless cars is necessary, to be sure. However, more data collection is also needed with respect to regular automobiles. The true number of collisions involving regular automobiles has always been underreported. By contrast, every collision involving a self-driving car is closely scrutinized and recorded. Comparing the two groups of data is therefore problematic.
According to researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, such an analysis is like comparing “apples to oranges.” The group’s January 2016 report found that autonomous vehicles had a crash rate of 8.7 per million miles – much higher than the national crash rate of 1.9 per million miles. But, they also explained that up to 60 percent of regular traffic accidents are never reported. Because the national crash rate does not include these figures, a direct comparison will skew the results in favor of regular vehicles.
Even at this early stage of development, autonomous vehicles may already be safer than those that require a driver. Only further research (and accurate reporting of traditional traffic accidents) will conclusively answer the question. Until then, consumers will need to ignore slick car advertisements and sensational news reports, and simply decide for themselves.