About Safety of Self-Driving Cars

Google recently announced their self-driving cars have been in 11 crashes ever? Like… ever. But, I’ve never been in a car accident so does that make me better than them? Last time, the Associated Press reported Google’s self-driving cars were involved in 11 minor crashes in six years. Is that a lot?

Not according to Google. They count it as a win that their cars have driven 1 million automated miles of testing in the six years they’ve been at it, and have only had these few fender benders. By comparison, the human population crashes about 0.3 times for every 100,000 miles, (161,000 km) per driver according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Wait a second… So really, Google’s stats aren’t that much better at 0.6 per 100,000! So why are they spending so much money to develop a self-driving car that doesn’t seem safer? Because many non-fatal crashes go unreported, so it’s very likely that point three crashes per 100,000 miles isn’t even accurate. On top of that, 94 percent of all crashes ever are caused by human failure. We are the absolute worst at driving. Cell phone bans don’t reduce crashes, drunk driving prohibitions, speed limits, and the like don’t stop drivers crashing; instead fatalities are still in the tens of thousands every year.

In fact, for example according Discovery News, the reason there were collisions with the self-driving cars at all was because of driver error! Sources say the car has been rear-ended mostly, but it’s also been sideswiped and hit by a car that ran a red light or stop sign. Since the crash specifics are secret, we can’t be certain, but Google says the car was never at fault, and eight of those crashes were on city streets. If you buy their spin, then yes – the cars probably are safer! And private cars are just the tip of the iceberg.

We’re also gonna be seeing autonomous vehicles in the commercial space. Earlier this month, auto manufacturer Daimler unveiled its self-driving semi-truck. The “Inspiration Truck” can drive itself on the highway, and only needs a human operator in cities. On top of that, they can network on the road and drive in a caravan, getting improved gas mileage as a crew by taking advantage of the slipstream of the truck in front of them. Basically, only the truck in front has to fully cut through the air, the rest “draft” and get a mileage boost.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates commercial freight logged 3.3 trillion ton-miles in 2012, and trucks represented 38 percent of that — or 1.3 trillion miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover for the Inspiration Truck or other similar commercial trucks. Aside from Google and Daimler, Audi and Nissan have also developed self-driving cars. Tesla announced the Model S will have autonomous features within a few months.

So the future is pretty much here. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ranks self-driving vehicles, and both the Google cars and the Inspiration Truck as “Level 3” autonomous vehicles; unlike an airplane on autopilot. They can travel autonomously, but quote “The driver is expected to be available for occasional control… sufficiently comfortable transition time.” So the car can’t just toss it to the driver when someone jumps in front… but then who is at fault? If “driver” wasn’t actually driving, and Google programmed the thing; what happens?

At this point, no one knows. California, Nevada, Michigan, Florida, and Washington, D.C are the only places that license for self-driving cars, so far, and there are only 48 autonomous vehicles registered in California; 23 of those are Google’s. In the end these laws are still so new, and the technology isn’t entirely proven. Driving a million autonomous miles is small compared to the trillions travelled by truck drivers in the U.S. alone.

July 5th, 2015 by