Will Self-Driving Cars Be the Biggest Advance in Road Safety?

Vehicle Accidents
self driving cars

This is a guest blog post from the law firm of Wapner, Newman, Wigrizer, Brecher & Miller.

Human error prompts most of today's car accidents, and yet, many drivers are reluctant to cede control to self-driving cars. So far, research indicates that their fears are mostly unwarranted. Although not yet perfect, driverless cars promise to make our roads safer and more convenient to navigate. The self-driving car may prove to be an even greater advancement than the seat belt.

Driverless Cars: Predictions of a Safer Future

According to a story published in the Atlantic, researchers anticipate that driverless cars will reduce traffic-related deaths by as much as 90 percent. This amounts to the prevention of approximately 300,000 deaths in just one decade — on par with the life-saving efficacy of the modern vaccine. Even imperfect self-driving cars would greatly reduce accident rates by removing the potential for human error.

How Do Self-Driving Cars Prevent Accidents?

Even the best human drivers behave irresponsibly behind the wheel. Humans are prone to impatience, distraction, sleepiness and road rage. Despite this, we overestimate our driving abilities. Conversely, driverless cars do not speed, consume alcoholic beverages, or apply makeup while on the road. Research indicates that distractions cause over one-third of annual crashes. Their elimination could lead to four million fewer crashes every year.

Not only do self-driving cars reduce accidents, they respond better to in-the-moment hazards. At their best, human senses are not nearly as keen as sensors attached to autonomous vehicles. Constant data collection allows cars to respond immediately to detected risks. Their reaction time exceeds that of even the best human drivers.

Risks of Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars may prevent accidents related to human error, but they pose a few risks of their own. Chief among these is the tendency for drivers to be lulled into a false sense of security. Convinced that vehicles can handle all situations, drivers may no longer pay attention to the road, even when they are instructed to.  In these early stages of driverless technology, drivers may occasionally need to take over. Calamity could ensue if they're not alert at the right time.

Hacking also remains a grave concern. Critics worry that terrorists could hack into self-driving systems to purposefully cause accidents. This fear could be the greatest safety-related obstacle preventing the average American from fully embracing a driverless future. In an AutoWeek survey of 1,000 drivers, 75 percent confessed that they feared hacking above all other driverless car risks.

Self-driving technology has come a long way, but it's not yet perfect. This was evident in a 2016 Tesla crash that resulted in one fatality. The responsible driverless technology failed to distinguish the pale sky color from the white of a tractor-trailer truck. This accident prompted alarm among skeptics, but an ensuing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation absolved Tesla of all responsibility. Still, critics worry that recent congressional safety exemptions will lead to a rushed unveiling of driverless technology. This could lead to more accidents similar to the 2016 Tesla tragedy.

Improving on Driverless Cars

Once self-driving vehicles achieve their full potential, many of the possible risks outlined above can be avoided. Already, research indicates that a 'dangerous' or less-than-perfect self-driving car far exceeds the average human driver. Still, the need for improvement remains. Current efforts intend to improve the accuracy of camera functionality, especially in rain and other adverse weather conditions. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently revealed an effort to enhance pedestrian detection via LiDAR.

Like it or not, self-driving cars are the future. Experts at Fortune estimate that 95 percent of vehicles on the road in 2040 will be entirely autonomous. Already, experts believe that the average driverless car is far less likely to be involved in an accident than the average human driver. Driverless cars could be this generation's greatest safety advancement.

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