Self-driving cars, also called autonomous vehicles, are getting closer to the day when they’ll be making routine use of public thoroughfares. For now, their road usage is in the experimental phase. Concerning the need for such vehicles, safety is cited as an important consideration.
With regard to this point, most researchers think they’ll be a big plus in improving transportation safety, a few see potential threats to safety, and some are concerned about unintended fallout from improved safety.
One trend that indicates self-driving cars will benefit public safety is the manner in which they’re being phased in right now. The introduction of autonomous vehicles is often presented as an all or nothing event. In actuality, components that define such vehicles are being implemented in new cars of trucks of just the last few years. Examples include automatic parking, front collision alerts with automatic braking, and even lane keeping on open stretches of road. These additions to newer vehicles aim at making driving safer. Automatic parking permits the car to take over steering so it can maneuver itself into a space while the driver controls acceleration and brakes.
In some option packages, frontal collision warning mechanisms let the vehicle apply the brakes at relatively low speeds while the driver handles the steering. Modified cruise control on cars such as the Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz automatically holds the car in its present highway lane, but the driver can only remove their hands from the wheel for a couple of seconds.
So far, an estimated 1.8 million miles of driving have been conducted by self-driving cars over the last few years. Google had been the top experimenter, but other companies like Audi, Nissan, and Delphi have conducted their own trials. Using Google’s numbers, it’s estimated that self-driving cars suffer 3.2 crashes per million miles driven while humans average 4.2 crashes. Of course, the self-driving cars have people standing by to take over, so the comparison is distorted.
The main problem with getting these devices to work at all times involves dealing with ambiguous situations that can even confuse human drivers. People have the advantage of facial expressions, non-verbal signals, and intuition to resolve such circumstances. While work remains on bringing autonomous vehicles up to human skill levels, they will be free from human errors caused by tiredness, intoxication, road rage, and distractions.
What Might Go Wrong
While autonomous cars look pretty safe, there are possible problems. One concern for critics is hacking. Self-driving cars not only rely on computers to make decisions, they use computers that are wired into wider networks. With input that includes Internet access, there’s lots of opportunities for skilled hackers to plant viruses that can cause accidents or disable the vehicle for ransom.
Another problem can arise during the transition phase when human drivers are still in the loop. It’s been observed that once someone hands driving over to a computer for a significant period of time, it takes about 10 seconds for them to regain the required focus when needed. In emergencies, there won’t be 10 seconds available. It’s also been pointed out that terrorists reluctant to serve as suicide bombers could use an explosives-laden autonomous vehicle to do their dirty work.
Anthony Gorospe is an attorney from Tulsa, Oklahoma who is passionate about encouraging safety for all communities while working with the Gorospe & Smith Tulsa Personal Injury Lawyer Firm in his own community to educate and promote safety and accident prevention.