Autonomous Cars: How Safe Are They?

Safety Team
Updated Apr 21, 2021
4 min read

Imagine this: you’re driving down the highway at 65 miles per hour, but your hands aren’t on the wheel, and your eyes aren’t on the road. You’re scrolling through Twitter or flipping through a book, maybe even watching your favorite show on an in-car screen. If that thought gives you anxiety, it’s understandable because you’ve been taught not to do any of those things while driving. But in this scenario, it’s not just fine to do — it’s by design. The promise of autonomous driving is precisely that. You will be able to do anything you’d like while you leave the driving to an automated computer system capable of navigating the road without the need for your input or control.

This is the future that people like Elon Musk have been presenting to the public for years now, and it seems like it might be just around the corner. Cars have gone from using an automated system to help you parallel park to being capable of doing some of the driving for you. But just how far are we from fully autonomous driving, and just how safe will it be once it finally is here?

The History of the Autonomous Car

The self-driving car seems like something that started in the world of sci-fi and is just now becoming a reality, but it’s been around in some form or another for quite some time. General Motors first brought the idea to the 1939 World’s Fair, showing off a vision for an automated highway supporting self-guided cars. They claimed it would be our future in just 20 years. Eighty-two years later, we’re still waiting on the technology to come to fruition entirely.

Of course, there have been other autonomous vehicle developments over time. As early as the 1970s, Japanese automakers toyed with the idea of a camera-based system that could view the road and, using computer technology, process what it saw and react. This is the basis of many modern autonomous vehicle systems, though the technology has advanced considerably.

Self-driving technology has been utilized in limited capacities, as well. Lexus first introduced an automated parking feature in 2006, and other automakers have used the technology for what amounts to slightly more advanced cruise control features. But the fully autonomous car could be right around the corner.

What Autonomous Cars Promise

The promise of the fully autonomous car is alluring. The idea is that you will be able to simply tell the car where you want to go and trust it to get there for you. These vehicles will accomplish this by utilizing technology that relies on sensor data, cameras, computer vision, and advanced information processing algorithms. All of this combined will allow the vehicle to remain on the road, interact with other traffic, respond to road signs and lights, and navigate to a given destination. And, as more of these automated vehicles are on the road, the theory is that they will communicate with one another to improve safety and efficiency.

In theory, this should help to cut down on accidents. There are, on average, about six million car accidents in the United States every single year. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, somewhere between 94% and 96% of those crashes are at least partially the result of human error. By eliminating the human aspect of driving, autonomous cars may prove to be safer.

Are Autonomous Cars Really Safe?

The problem is that the technology behind autonomous cars currently doesn’t live up to the promise. Few automated driving systems are capable of achieving true autonomy, in which human interaction or intervention is not required. Autonomous cars have already been involved in crashes, including fatal ones. The causes range from technological failures to vehicles behaving in ways that are unfamiliar and unexpected by other drivers.

While it’s hard to say just how safe autonomous vehicles will be when they reach something closer to their true potential, some researchers are skeptical. A study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety warned that autonomous vehicles failed to prevent about two-thirds of all crashes. While it’s great to eliminate 33% of accidents and potentially make other crashes less damaging, it doesn’t live up to the lofty goals that true believers in autonomous cars have claimed are possible.

Autonomous Cars Aren’t There Yet

Autonomous cars might be just around the corner, and they have the potential to eliminate some crashes caused by human error, but they may not be as safe as some believe. The closest thing we currently have to fully autonomous cars — Tesla’s autopilot feature — has caused numerous accidents lately, causing the NHTSA to open dozens of investigations. The current technological failures point to a long and bumpy road ahead, but the vision of a fully autonomous and safe future remains possible.

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