Are Self-Driving Cars Safe on the Road?

There has been a steady annual increase of the number of car wrecks and traffic fatalities directly related to distracted and impaired driving in the United States. This data also applies to the state of Maryland, particularly Baltimore.

Many motorists are excited about the latest impact of artificial application: the self-driving car. Also known as automated vehicles, self-driving cars have been a hot topic for many industries over the past three years. Theoretically, self-driving vehicles should be able to improve safety on the road for a few reasons. Self-driving vehicles react faster than human drivers, while eliminating problems such as drunk driving, driving and texting, and driving while fatigued.

Over $250 billion has been invested in self-driving vehicles to date, as they have continued to advance and offer advantages to consumers. Perhaps the most appealing is the promise to increase the independence and mobility to who cannot easily drive. Although there is no doubt self-driving cars are here to stay, the question remains as to whether they are safe to be deployed on a large scale.

Some experts have stated that self-driving cars can be trained to be safer on the roads than human drivers. However, the research, development, and data to support the safety of automated vehicles are still in early stages. Consumer opinion on the topic has been divided as well.

There are both advantages and drawbacks to self-driving cars that affect not only those on the road, but also the economy and its industry stakeholders. It is helpful to understand what makes a vehicle fully autonomous, as well as the impact of autonomy on safety.

When Is a Car Fully Autonomous?

Fully autonomous vehicles for both individual consumers and commercial fleets, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), are still considered to be fairly far off. However, several automakers of new cars and trucks are already using semi-autonomous driving technology. Some of these automakers include Ford, Toyota, Waymo, and Tesla.

The five stages of vehicle autonomy are as follows:

  • Level 1 automation: Vehicles have some driver assistance systems such as cruise control, acceleration, and lane changes.
  • Level 2 automation: Vehicles have advanced cruise control or autopilot systems that allow the car to take safety actions such as emergency braking. Drivers still need to stay alert at the steering wheel.
  • Level 3 automation: Human drivers are still required, but the car is able to perform some safety-critical functions in certain conditions. There is still a considerable risk regarding the handoff of control of the vehicle between human and automated driving system poses.
  • Level 4 automation: Vehicles can drive themselves almost all the time without any input from drivers, but they might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather.
  • Level 5 automation: Vehicles have full automation in all conditions.

Many of the consumer cars on the road today, such as Teslas, are Level 2 vehicles and have driver assistance capabilities. They are able to accelerate and brake automatically, and keep the car centered in its lane. However, drivers must constantly monitor the road and be ready to take over control immediately. It is a false concept that it is safe for a driver to read a book or watch a movie.

What Are the Dangers of Self-Driving Cars?

Self-driving cars have yet to be perfected, and there are risks associated with using them. Experts have voiced some concerns about the safety of self-driving cars, including the following:

  • The inability of most infrastructures to respond to errors or deficiencies made by driverless cars could lead to car wrecks.
  • The risk of motorists becoming distracted and relying on self-driving cars to respond to unexpected situations. This would slow down the required reaction time in the event of a car accident or other incident.
  • The risk of motorists feeling a false sense of security and safety.
  • The cyber security threat of hackers stealing self-driving vehicles, their contents, their owners’ personal information, or using them in terrorism.
  • Unexpected malfunctions self-driving cars’ software systems, which could lead to car accidents with other road users.

Most importantly, there is still a lack of real-world miles traveled on the road by self-driving cars compared with conventional motor vehicles. Until more is known, there will be continued focused on the safety of this new class of cars.

Benefits of Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars are also expected to have a positive impact on many things, for both individual consumers and society as a whole. Some benefits of self-driving cars include the following:

  • Decreased instances of alcohol or drug impaired drivers getting behind the wheel of a conventional vehicle.
  • Self-driving cars use systems that find the fastest route to a destination, which leads to improved fuel efficiency. This in turn will help improve fuel efficiency, reducing emissions and costs.
  • Statistics and data regularly reflect that almost all accidents on United States roads occur because of human error; therefore, self-driving vehicles could drastically reduce the number of car accidents and traffic fatalities our country suffers from annually.

What Is the Biggest Problem with Self-Driving Cars?

It has been widely discussed that the biggest problem and safety issue with self-driving cars is something called edge cases. Edges cases refer to instances in which motorists use commonsense reasoning and experiences to handle unexpected phenomenon while driving. Examples of edges are if a deer darts onto the highway, a sudden flood makes the road difficult to navigate, or a car fishtails while attempting to get up an icy hill.

It is important to remember that people are not taught about all these possible scenarios in driving school. Drivers learn from real road experience and use commonsense reasoning skills to predict such actions and outcomes.  Drivers of conventional cars have been conditioned to change their driving behavior should an edge case arise.

Unfortunately, commonsense reasoning cannot be built into self-driving cars or computer systems in general.  Automated vehicle developers must anticipate and code every possible situation, as a sort of substitute for human reasoning capabilities. There are limits for how much manufacturers are able to anticipate every situation and provide training examples of every possible situation to a machine.

The reality is, everyone has at least one unusual driving story, or example of an edge case. The biggest question remains; If there are 1.4 billion drivers in the world and therefore approximately 1.4 billion edge cases, how can they possibly all be identified and coded? Also, if self-driving cars cannot perform commonsense reasoning to handle all these edge cases, are they really safer than human drivers after all?

Many experts still believe that self-driving cars can be designed to be safer than human drivers. It is true that with sensors and cameras monitoring and guiding them, these cars can not only sense their environment but also can anticipate what is coming up ahead. This is something human drivers are not capable of doing.

Perhaps self-driving cars will eventually make the world a safer place by eliminating human error and reducing the number of car wrecks and traffic fatalities. However, it is clear there is still quite a long process before self-driving cars will reach all consumers. Time is still needed for testing and motorists to become comfortable with the technology.


Baltimore Car Wreck Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Are Experienced in Many Areas of Liability

If you or a loved one was injured in a car accident, reach out to the Baltimore car wreck lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton. Our experienced legal team will determine who is responsible for the accident and hold them liable for your injuries. We will walk you through every step of the legal process and address all your questions and concerns. Call us today at 800-547-4LAW (4529) or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.

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