Study Causes More Concern About Self-Driving Cars

By Kayla Matthews November 13, 2015

Self-driving vehicles may not be as safe after all, if a recent study is to be believed. According to researchers from the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, self-driving vehicles are involved in accidents at a much higher rate than those driven by humans.

More specifically, self-driving cars are five times more likely to be in an accident than a human-controlled vehicle. When you account for the fact that minor accidents aren't usually reported, however, that statistic narrows down to twice as likely. Even so, that's a significant finding, and it implies self-driving vehicles have a long way to go before they're truly safe.

The study was conducted by Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak, who published their findings on the University of Michigan website.

How Did They Conduct the Study?

The pair analyzed data collected from self-driving vehicles operated by Google, Volkswagen and Delphi. In total, their vehicle fleets have traveled more than 1.2 million miles. Those stats were compared to the amount of miles logged by regular vehicles, which numbers in the trillions.

The researchers admit that with a much larger data set, it's possible the accident rate would be higher or lower. That said, the information is enough to identify some relevant trends — specifically the fact that self-driving vehicles seem to have a much higher accident rate.

That information doesn't necessarily mean we should forget about self-driving vehicles, however. None of the accidents were serious. In fact, almost all of them happened because the self-operated vehicle was hit in the rear at a speed of under five miles per hour.

What Does It Mean?

Google has gone so far as to claim all the accidents involving their vehicles were caused by human error and not that of the software driving system responsible for controlling the vehicle. This may well be true, especially since these cars are not completely autonomous yet. Human drivers sometimes take the wheel when the vehicles are on the roadways.

When you look at the bigger picture, though, self-driving vehicles will never get distracted, tired, drive under the influence or even break traffic laws like speeding. These are all things that humans do, and the mistakes account for 81 percent of the 88 deaths per day because of auto accidents.

Google's self-driving cars have logged 700,000 miles accident-free, which means they have been safe for the equivalent of 47 years. This is because the average driver travels about 15,000 miles per year.

Self-driving vehicles will save time, precious roadway space and maybe even lives. When operating fully, they will be able to take us to a destination, drop us off and then park themselves. Think about how much time you would save and stress you could alleviate during a morning commute if you didn't have to worry about driving and then parking the car when you reach your destination.

In the end, it's possible that the benefits will considerably outweigh the risks.

Self-Driving Cars and Non-Motorized Vehicles

Interestingly enough, one of the biggest issues when it comes to self-driving vehicle safety has to do with cyclists. Google's car cannot discern whether or not a cyclist is a pedestrian or something else entirely.

To deal with a nearby cyclist, the vehicle will idle cautiously and wait for them to move. If the cyclist moves into the roadway, the car would come to a complete stop. However, if the cyclist stays still, then the car would keep going. At first, this seems like the ideal solution — until you consider what would realistically happen. Cyclists entering the roadway would cause a vehicle to come to a sudden, complete stop, which is a recipe for disaster.

In the end, there's one thing we can all agree on. Self-driving vehicle experts, researchers and manufacturers alike will need more time to fully understand the implications of these vehicles on the road. It will be a while yet before we see them cruising around our local roadways.

Edited by Ken Briodagh
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Contributing Writer

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