Self-driving cars could only prevent a third of US crashes: study

05 June 2020 - 09:52 By Reuters
A Zoox Inc self-driving car is operated outside the company's headquarters in Foster City, California, on Wednesday, May 27 2020.
A Zoox Inc self-driving car is operated outside the company's headquarters in Foster City, California, on Wednesday, May 27 2020.
Image: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Self-driving cars, long touted by developers as a way to eliminate road deaths, could likely only prevent a third of all US road crashes, according to a study released on Thursday.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a research group financed by US insurers, found the remaining crashes were caused by mistakes that self-driving systems are not equipped to handle any better than human drivers.

Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, a consortium of self-driving companies and researchers, said in a statement on Thursday the study wrongly assumed that automated cars could only prevent crashes caused by perception errors and incapacitation.

About 72% of crashes were avoidable, based on the study's calculations, if accidents caused by speeding and violation of traffic laws were included, the consortium said.

Traffic experts say roughly nine in 10 crashes result from human error and more than 36,000 people are estimated to have died in US car crashes last year.

Self-driving vehicle developers, including traditional car makers and technology companies, have repeatedly positioned fully automated driving as a tool to drastically reduce road deaths.

But not all human mistakes can be eliminated by camera, radar and other sensor-based technology, according to the IIHS analysis of more than 5,000 representative police-reported crashes nationwide.

One-third of all crashes were the exclusive result of sensing and perception errors, or driver incapacitation, the study found.

Most crashes were due to more complex errors, such as making wrong assumptions about other road users' actions, driving too fast or too slow for road conditions, or making incorrect evasive manoeuvres. Many crashes resulted from multiple mistakes.

“Our goal was to show that if you don't deal with those issues, self-driving cars won't deliver massive safety benefits,” said Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice-president for research and a co-author of the study.


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