It may be years before self-driving cars and trucks reach perfection but until then, they can save thousands of lives, according to a a RAND Corporation report. Even if autonomous cars are initially only 10 percent better than current American drivers, they could prevent thousands — possibly hundreds of thousands — of fatalities over the next 30 years, RAND researchers found.
“Our work suggests that it is sensible to allow autonomous vehicles on America’s roads when they are judged to be just moderately safer than having a person behind the wheel,” said Nidhi Kalra, co-author of the study and director of RAND’s San Francisco office. “If we wait until these vehicles are nearly perfect, our research suggests the cost will be many thousands of needless vehicle crash deaths caused by human mistakes. It’s the very definition of perfect being the enemy of good.”
Consumer groups and some federal and state agencies have been arguing that autonomous cars could present new dangers to motorists and shouldn’t be allowed on the roads until they are close to perfection, even though human drivers are very far from perfect.
Developers are currently testing self-driving cars and trucks in San Francisco, Phoenix, Pittsburgh and elsewhere. The cars have been involved in a few accidents, in most cases when they were rear-ended by human drivers.
The allure of driverless cars is based partly on convenience and partly on the potential to eliminate costly human errors, such as driving when drunk, tired or distracted. More than 90 percent of crashes involve such driver-related errors, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Some self-driving crashes inevitable
Researchers acknowledge that even if autonomous vehicles are proven safer than the average human driver, the vehicles would still cause crashes. They remain vulnerable to other hazards, such as inclement weather, complex traffic situations, and even cyber-attacks.
“This may not be acceptable because society may be less tolerant of mistakes made by machines than of mistakes made by people,” said David Groves, study co-author and co-director of RAND’s Water and Climate Resilience Center. “But if we can accept that early self-driving cars will make some mistakes — but fewer than human drivers — developers can use early deployment to more rapidly improve self-driving technology, even as their vehicles save lives.”
Kalra hopes the study will enable policymakers and the public to better weigh potential risks and benefits of autonomous vehicles. Key considerations include how to measure the safety of the vehicles and what should constitute a passing grade.
The report builds upon past research that found road testing under real traffic conditions is impractical for proving autonomous vehicle safety prior to deployment because it would take decades or longer to drive the requisite miles.
There is no question that traffic accidents pose a public health crisis. Citing figures from the National Safety Council, the report notes that crashes caused more than 35,000 fatalities and 2.4 million injuries in 2015. The council projected 2016 would be deadlier, with 40,200 fatalities.
The full text of the RAND study is available online.