Self-Driving Cars: Are There Safety Benefits?

safety of self-driving carsEarlier this year, I spoke to you about how new technology is creating self-driving cars and whether this technology could potentially decrease auto accidents. Well, by now you have probably heard about the tragedy involving a Tesla driver. The driver was killed while the Tesla Model S was in autopilot mode. This is the first reported death involving a self-driving car. It occurred when a tractor trailer made a left hand turn in front of the Tesla, which failed to apply the brakes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continues to investigate the deadly crash.

As technology continues to change, we are faced with a dilemma. Is allowing a computer to drive for us a better alternative? It certainly seemed like it months ago before this death. Now more questions are raised. This incident may be the first of many cautionary tales of how despite changes in technology and cars becoming more autonomous, there remains no substitute for being aware behind the wheel. Our personal judgement and awareness may be the better of the two options. Of course humans make mistakes, or the conscious decision to drive distracted or recklessly, which could cause a crash. But personal awareness of what is going on around you may be greater than a computer’s awareness.

That does not mean that we should be hindering the exploration of new technology. It may be able to provide great driver assists, which in turn could help with safety. However, it’s already been a concern that smart cars, which are supposed to help lessen distractions on the road, still cause distracted driving. Research has shown that hands-free phone conversations in the car still cause drivers to miss important signals in avoiding crashes.

Now we are faced with whether or not autonomous vehicles can make split-second, life-or-death decisions regarding driving. A person has a flight or fight reaction; they will be able to react quickly on the road. For example, what if a pedestrian or animal runs into the middle of the road? This happens quickly, and I truly wonder how a self-driving car could quickly judge and react in this situation. By the time the car knows how to respond, it may be too late.

Problems for Self-Driving Cars

The NY Times in early June came out with 5 Things that Give Self-Driving Cars Headaches. It looked at 5 different situations that self-driving cars may react poorly to, they included:

  • Unpredictable Humans (reckless drivers): Computer algorithms can’t predict poor decision making by other drivers. Self-driving cars have to be able to deal with speeding drivers, cars driving the wrong way on a one-way street, or the car behind you failing to stop for a yellow light. People can judge, but can a car?
  • Bad Weather: If driving in bad weather is difficult for humans, it’s not going to be easier for an autonomous car. In fact, falling snow or rain can make it more difficult for sensors to identify obstacles on the road.
  • Detours and Rerouted Roads (digital mapping): We all love using google maps, but often digital maps can be out of date as road conditions change. There also may be construction or detours that are going to make it more difficult for a self-driving car.
  • Potholes: We know potholes are big problem in Colorado, and self-driving cars are using radars and scanning for obstacles in front of them, not obstacles on the surface of the road. It’s hard for sensors to even judge what a dark patch on the road could be. Is it a pothole? A puddle? An oil spot?
  • Having to Make Tough Decisions (ethics on the road): This is the most difficult of the five. Split second decisions regarding what to do to save a life. The article poses the situation where two running children jump in the middle of the road to catch a ball, and the only options are to hit the kids or to veer right and hit a telephone pole which could kill the driver and passengers. What does the self-driving car do? This is a spontaneous decision about life and death in the moment. A car can’t really make that kind of judgement call.

As the technology progresses, decisions need to be made regarding the safety of self-driving cars. It remains to be seen if self-driving cars will have the experience and awareness of actual drivers.

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