The merits of self-driving vehicles are being called into question following two recent accidents involving Tesla’s Autopilot feature. The first crash, which happened in May in Florida, resulted in the death of the driver. The second occurred in Philadelphia in late June when the vehicle struck a median and overturned into oncoming traffic. Thankfully, no one was killed, but do these two mishaps spell the beginning of the end for self-driving vehicles?
Having two such accidents so close together certainly seems damning, but the jury is still out on autonomous vehicles. The main argument in favor of self-driving cars is that human error causes 94% of accidents. The data supports that. In January Google commissioned a study by Virginia Tech that analyzed more than 50 of the tech giant’s self-driving vehicles. Altogether, the cars drove 1.3 million miles across California and Texas without the aid of humans. Human-driven vehicles were involved in 4.2 crashes per million miles, as opposed to self-driving cars that find themselves in 3.2 crashes per million miles. Crash rates for self-driving cars were lower at all levels of severity than traditional cars, the researchers found.
However, a similar study conducted in October 2015 by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) found the opposite to be true. UMTRI researchers compared the crash rates of the self-driving cars produced by Google, Delphi, and Audi, and found 9.1 crashes per million miles. Still, the UMTRI study cautioned that the low volume of miles logged by self-driving cars – only 1.2 million miles compared to the 3 trillion miles travelled per year by human-driven vehicles – made for an ultimately inadequate comparison.
That conclusion was echoed by a RAND Corporation report issued in April. Researchers stated that self-driving vehicles would need to have hundreds of millions of miles, if not hundreds of billions of miles, under their belt to fully demonstrate their reliability over human drivers. Even the authors of the Virginia Tech study admitted that further research and additional miles would be needed. Similarly, two instances alone aren’t sufficient to condemn autonomous vehicles.
This is especially true since, despite the name, Tesla’s Autopilot feature is anything but autonomous. It adjusts speed and can react to surroundings, but it still requires drivers to do some steering and to take over accelerating and braking in some cases. The feature is more on par with systems like Volvo’s accident prevention system than a true self-driving car.
For now self-driving cars are only an R&D project for automakers. That’s good, since it will be a while before drivers fully trust them.
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