Are Autonomous Cars Safer Than Human Drivers?
Uber’s self-driving vehicle project has been called into question in a recent New York Times (NYT) article citing safety issues and company expectations after reviewing 100 pages of company documents and interviews with two people familiar with company operations.
In the article, NYT cites several incidents where human safety drivers had to intervene to avoid accidents when navigating more complicated terrain such as construction zones and while driving near large trucks, with the rates of those incidents more than competing companies’ self-driving projects.
When analyzing driver intervention frequency, they found that Google’s Waymo project drove an average of 5,600 miles before needing driver intervention whereas Uber was having difficulty with its goal of just 13 miles before a driver was needed. Chevy Cruise reported going more than 1,200 miles before needing a driver to take control.
The article states that employees of Uber expressed safety concerns to management when the company went from two driverless car operators to one. Using the team approach, one driver was solely responsible for system performance and data, while the other remained ready to take control of the vehicle if needed.
When Waymo moved from two drivers to one, they added an audio feature that allowed the driver to record verbally while they were taking over the controls. Uber developed an app that was available on an iPad mounted to the car’s middle console to alert company engineers. Although many Uber drivers would annotate data while stopped at a traffic light, many did so while the car was moving.
Company documents also revealed an internal goal to offer driverless car service by the end of the year in order to impress Uber executives.
Tesla Driver Using Autopilot Killed in California – 2018
A fatal crash occurred in Mountain View, CA last month when a driver using the vehicle’s Autopilot feature crashed into highway barrier and caught fire.
“The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive,” a statement on Tesla’s website said.
“The driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision.”
“The driver had about five seconds and 150m (490ft) of unobstructed view of the concrete divider… but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken,” the statement added.
At this time it has not been determined if the Autopilot system had sensed the concrete barrier.
The driver was 38 years old.
Arizona Uber Crash Kills One – 2018
In March, an Uber Volvo XC90 SUV struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year old homeless woman, despite an Uber safety driver in the vehicle. Ms. Herzberg was pushing a bicycle across the road about 10:00 PM as she was hit. It has been indicated that the Uber driver was looking down at the time of the accident.
The accident occurred in Arizona, a state that is now receiving criticism for lack of regulations governing self-driving car testing, particularly with regard to a requirement that does not require autonomous vehicle companies to report testing performance.
Ms. Herzberg was the first pedestrian to be killed by a self-driving car in the United States.
Tesla Driver Using Autopilot Killed in Florida – 2016
A crash in 2016 killed driver Joshua Brown 40, as he drove his Tesla Model S in self-driving mode, crashing into a truck that had crossed into his path. The technology engaged at the time of the incident controlled the vehicle’s steering, acceleration and braking. An investigation of the accident by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that Brown had ignored repeated warnings to take control of the wheel and that they had not discovered any defects in Tesla’s self-driving system.
30 States Now Allow Self-Driving Cars
Although 30 states have passed measures to allow for autonomous vehicle testing on roadways, only five states have vehicles on the road today.
“There are clearly incentives to being as welcoming as possible, because when some states added hurdles (for example, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles requires self-driving permit holders to report accidents), companies just left for a more-friendly state,” says Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Cox Automotive.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) website, each year the number of states considering legislation increases. They show:
- In 2017, 33 states introduced legislation vs. 20 states in 2016
- Sixteen states introduced legislation in 2015, up from 12 states in 2014, nine states and D.C. in 2013, and six states in 2012.
- Since 2012, at least 41 states and D.C. have considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles
- Twently-two states have enacted legislation related to autonomous vehicles: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont and Washington D.C.
- Governors in these states have issued executive orders related to autonomous vehicles: Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin.
The NCSL has a new autonomous vehicles legislative data base with real-time legislation measures, found here.
Are Autonomous Cars Safer Than Human Drivers?
When measuring fatalities in human-controlled vehicles, it is measured in “vehicle miles traveled”. In 2016, there were 1.8 deaths for every 100 million miles driven in the United States. As total miles driven that year were nearly 3.2 trillion, that means tens of thousands of people killed.
When measuring fatalities in autonomous vehicles using three driverless car deaths (if including Tesla’s Autopilot fatalities with limited capabilities), Waymo has logged approximately 4 million miles, Uber has logged approximately 2 million miles, and even when adding in the other autonomous vehicle projects, the number isn’t anywhere near 100 million miles.
This data does not suggest autonomous vehicles are safer than human drivers.
On the other hand, when cars were first introduced, there were 24 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. This shows that over time, cars, drivers and roads improve, which reduces the number of deaths. In this case, by 95 percent.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 90% of car crashes involve driver error.
With distracted driving as a major contributor to driver error behind the wheel, autonomous vehicles take away the dangers of people texting while driving, drunk driving or falling asleep at the wheel. Other benefits of autonomous vehicles are such things as the ability to serve those who are blind, too old or too young to drive, reduce traffic and emissions.
Timeline of Safety Technology
See some of the safety advancements in automotive history since 1950:
1950 – 2000: safety/convenience features; cruise control, seat belts, anti-lock brakes
2000 – 2010: advanced safety features; electronic stability control, blind spot detection, forward collision warning, lane departure warning
2010 – 2016: advanced driver assistance features; rearview video systems, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian automatic emergency braking, rear automatic emergency braking, rear cross traffic alert, lane centering assist
2016 – 2025: partially automated safety features; lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, traffic jam assist, self-park
2025+: fully automated safety features; highway autopilot