Self Driving Car Safety In The Real World

September 16, 2015  |  By John Jasper  |       

Everyone is looking forward to the coming of the self-driven automobile, some with anticipation, and some with trepidation. Vehicle safety is the concern on everyone’s mind, especially with the bumps and starts automakers have experienced designing new automated safety features. Although the self-driven car is a great concept in theory, in practice it may take some time to work out the kinks and make self-driven cars safe for real world driving.

Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes every year. That averages 3,287 deaths per day. Road crashes are the major cause of death worldwide, accounting for 2.2 percent of fatalities. In the United States, more than 37,000 people die in road accidents every year and more than 2.35 million people are injured or disabled. Most accidents involve drivers between ages 16 and 20, and road crashes cost Americans $230.6 million or $820 per person.

Insurance underwriters and carmakers are hoping that self-driven cars will reduce these statistics, but the industry has to cross some hurdles first.

Automated Safety Can’t Anticipate the Human Element

To date, most of the testing for autonomous vehicles has been in urban and suburban areas; areas where there are well-marked streets, intersections, and signals. Self-driven cars are programmed to obey the traffic laws to the letter, but that leaves no room for the human factor.

Google has been experimenting with its fleet of 20 self-driven cars for the past five years and has reported 11 minor accidents after 1.7 million miles. Not a bad track record. According to Google sources, those 11 minor fender benders were the result of other drivers’ errors, such as inattention causing a rear-end crash at a stop light. Still, the technology has progressed a long way since 2009, when the first Google cars froze at an intersection waiting for all traffic to stop.

The real problem is that humans don’t always follow the rules, and that makes it difficult for self-driven car systems to compensate. By obeying the law to the letter, self-driven cars can actually become a hazard when they become part of human driven traffic. Consider the challenge of adaptive cruise control, which is now shipping in a number of new car models. Adaptive cruise control is designed to keep pace with the car in front of you, adjusting speed to maintain a safe driving distance. The problem is that other drivers don’t follow the safe driving distance recommendations, especially in congested traffic. Once you set adaptive cruise control cars merging in front of you will continue to slow your car as it drops back to maintain that safe driving distance. It can’t compensate for the human element.

To be effective, humans need to understand how to use the technology. In the latest viral video that shows a Volvo XC60 running into pedestrians in a garage, the allegation was that the pedestrian detection system failed. After further investigation, it seemed the car was not equipped with pedestrian detection, so the accident was due to human error rather than technological failure. So even with the safest technology in place, the human factor will continue to introduce a random element that creates risk.

Baby Steps Toward the Autonomous Car

Self-driven cars certainly aren’t going to be a safety panacea. In addition to the human element, they will be ill equipped to handle specific road conditions, such as snow and ice, or heavy rain and flooding.

For example, rural driving tends to be more dangerous than urban driving. Although the rate of accidents is about the same, rural accidents tend to be more serious. Statistics show that 12.45 percent of rural crashes cause serious injury compared to 7.66 percent of urban crashes. There also are 27.61 deaths per 100,000 people in the country as opposed to 10.58 deaths in cities. Given that the hazards are different and there are fewer restrictions on rural roads, self-driving cars will have to evolve much further to be able to handle rural driving safely.

However, new technology is still helping people drive more safely. Mobileye, for example, is developing visual sensing technology that can take over car steering in the event the driver is incapacitated. When you consider that 20 percent of accidents are due to fatigue or falling asleep behind the wheel this kind of technology could save thousands of lives, even if it’s not part of a self-driven automobile.

It seems likely that that is how autonomous vehicles will evolve, one piece of technology at a time. As carmakers develop new safety systems, such as self-steering cars and adaptive cruise control, the test of real world driving will assert itself and the flaws will be corrected. As the bugs are worked out of these automated systems, cars will become safer until, one day, the entire automobile can be automated.

Whether drivers will ever want to give up total control while behind the wheel has yet to be seen, but new features will continue to make driving safer while we wait for the visionaries to shake out the bugs from the self-driven car.

What concerns do you have at the moment with self driving car safety?

Topics: Autonomous/Driverless Cars

John Jasper

John is the President and COO of Abalta Technologies. Abalta Technologies, Inc. is an emerging leader in the connected car landscape. Abalta has developed an innovative platform to enable car companies, automotive electronic firms and tier 1 suppliers to bridge the gap between the smartphone and the car’s infotainment system.

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