National Transportation Safety Board

Quick Notes

Human error causes most auto accidents.

Self-driving cars are safe given the right circumstances and uses.

There are inherent dangers to self-driving cars, such as electrical and technological breakdown, and they should be tightly regulated.

Self-driving cars

Self-driving car safety has been hotly debated in recent years as we see more and more of them.  But are they safe? Are they completely autonomous on the road? Is there a human being still behind the wheel in case of a breakdown? The answer to each of these questions can easily affect one’s opinion on self-driving car safety.

A self-driving car is described as either an autonomous, driverless or robotic car that has the ability to detect its surroundings and proceed safely with little or no human control. The definition covers a lot and a car with some human oversight or control is safer than none due to concerns relating to mechanical, electrical or technological breakdown, and situations requiring human interaction and understanding. But, the same could be said in claiming self-driving cars are safer with less human oversight. A self-driving car predicts the actions of others around it while it detects its surroundings. When unpredictable actions occur, it may not be as easy for the self-driving car to make its own decisions as to how to proceed within the short time period that a decision needs to be made and action needs to be taken.

Self-driving cars: Safe?

1.  Human Error – Most automobile accidents are caused by human error. Removing the human element from driving should automatically make these vehicles safer. That being said, in situations of breakdown or where there is an interaction with a car driven by a human, eye contact and mutual implied agreement may be required for everyone on the road to safely navigate a situation.

2.  Strict Set rules – Self-driving cars are programmed to strictly follow the rules of the road and common good practice standards of safe driving in addition to their own programmed rules. They do not deviate from these are and so are theoretically considered safer than cars with human drivers.

3.  Technically there is still a human involved – Despite the claim of being ‘driverless’ there is an actual human being involved who oversees the vehicle. The commonly referred to accident in 2018 in which a pedestrian was killed has been attributed to the inattention of the human overseer. Take from that what you will.

Self-driving cars: Madness?

1.  Adverse weather conditions – To date, the self-driving car has only been tested in areas with dry weather conditions. It remains to be seen how a self-driving car would handle a snowstorm, hitting black ice or hydroplaning. These may be conditions for which human interaction is required in order to avoid accidents. There is a reason self-driving cars have yet to be extensively used in areas where there is a lot of rainfall or harsh weather conditions.  Doubts are to be had about a self-driving car’s ability to maneuver black ice or accident avoidance when multiple cars are losing control on a roadway.

2.  Unpredictable human driver element – The reality is that due to cost and concern not everyone is going to be rushing out to the dealership for their self-driving car. This means self-driving cars will have to deal with the unpredictable nature and human error of human drivers still on the road. The artificial intelligence of the self-driving car may not have the ability to determine what to do in the case a human driver on the road suffers a medical condition behind the wheel, is drunk or other. Just as all human drivers cannot accurately and safely predict what to do in those situations, neither can the self-driving car.  In 2016 a truck collided with a self-driving car in ‘autopilot’ and killed the car’s driver. Could this have been avoided had the driver been actively driving the vehicle?

3.  Mechanical breakdown – Mechanical breakdown and avoiding those who have had a mechanical breakdown are realities of driving. Will the self-driving vehicle always know how to react in the event of a mechanical breakdown leading to a driving emergency? Will it be able to appropriately handle a tire blowout on the highway at high speeds? And in light of the human element and unpredictable nature of the other drivers? There are a few reasonable doubts here.

Self-driving cars: Only safe in certain situations?

The reality may be that self-driving cars are only safe in certain controlled situations.  Such as:

1.  Designated lanes – The use of designated lanes similar to high occupancy vehicle lanes might be a solution to allowing more self-driving cars onto the road. The possibility of human error or unpredictability from another car with a human driver would all but be eliminated if self-driving cars were restricted to particular areas.

2.  Lowered speeds – If self-driving cars are not used on the highway and limited to lower speeds, the likelihood of fatal accidents are much less likely.

3.   Dry weather only – The ability for self-driving cars to handle adverse winter weather conditions has yet to be tested. There are drivers of decades who do not feel comfortable to handle adverse Winter weather conditions on the road. It may be best if self-driving cars are limited to nice weather and dry roads.

4.  Constant human oversight – Similar to how cruise control works, it may be best to require a sober licensed human to be in technical oversight of the self-driving car at all times.