With the announcement of Google’s driverless prototype cars and Tesla’s “Autopilot” software, it seemed like something out of a futuristic sci-fi movie come to life. The possibility of having assisted driving made most of us picture ourselves being driven around by our own personal A.I. chauffer and finally having the ability to read, catch up on emails/social media, or sleep while the car safely drives us to our destination.
The buzz around self-driving cars is exciting for both consumers and traffic safety advocates, alike. The potential of autonomous vehicles could be huge in reducing accidents and saving us from distracted and/or impaired drivers alone. But a new report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Highway Loss Data Institute, (IIHS HLDI), reminds us that this emerging technology isn’t ready for us to let go of the wheel completely, at least not yet.
Early tests show that while these cars have the potential to reduce crashes, there were issues where the cars either malfunctioned and/or had a technical issue that needed the driver to retake the wheel during an emergency. This can be a huge problem if you are not paying attention, per the report:
“Anything less than fully automated driving will introduce new challenges for the people who ride along. Experimental studies demonstrate that drivers can fail to notice when systems reach their limits and can have trouble retaking control of the vehicle, especially in emergency situations.”
After a fatal crash happened when Tesla’s Model S Autopilot software failed to recognize and collided with the tractor trailer in its blind spot, the company reminded drivers that the “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert”.
And minor crashes were reported with Google’s cars when they interacted with human drivers, mostly below 10 mph around intersections and were considered “considerably lower” than crash rates of human drivers in the same area. But this test data reminds us that it’s still going to be a while before we have complete autonomous cars like the scenario described above and human errors in driving will still be a problem for at least a couple decades:
“Even if the U.S. government were to require all new vehicles sold to be autonomous tomorrow, it would take at least 25 years until nearly 95 percent of the vehicles on the road would have the capability,” says Matt Moore, HLDI vice president.”
New technology allows us to improve the safety of our roads in innovative ways, such as additional sensors to detect some crashes before they happen, technology to assist drivers with parking, etc. But it looks like drivers will still have to rely on being alert to avoid crashes, at least with the first round of driverless cars. And with human error still being an issue, law enforcement will still need traditional methods to enforce traffic laws and keep our roads safe.