Two car accident victims stumble into a bar. The first tells the bartender, “it came out of nowhere.” The second has, before arriving, already sent pre-crash video footage and telemetry data to the bartender.
Autonomous cars transform accidents into errors, which is why they stand to be the greatest safety innovation in automotive history.
Rhetorical arguments are bubbling up around what it means for a self-driving vehicle to be safe enough for commercialization, yet statistical projections overlook the core value propositions of driverless technology: observation and communication. Autonomous cars transform accidents into errors, which is why they stand to be the greatest safety innovation in automotive history — even if they don’t prevent a single crash.
The U.S. saw seven million traffic collisions in 2016. This is a key performance indicator for benchmarking safety, but our inability to observe human drivers means the figure only reflects crashes reported to authorities. An extensive survey from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that drivers admitted failure to report their collisions at a rate of 29 percent. As such, if autonomous cars were launched into use nationwide and a zero percent improvement in reported crashes occurred, that would actually indicate a 29 percent decrease in real crashes — the most significant improvement in history, thanks entirely to observation.
Such a monumental advancement goes even further when we consider any collisions that might occur.
The paramount safety feature in a conventional vehicle is its driver, but the driving public has no reliable model for learning from individuals’ mistakes. Nowhere is this flaw more apparent than in the comparatively astronomical fatality rates for young drivers, who are three times more likely to die than drivers over the age of 20. Even within the subset of teenage drivers, those 16-17 years old are twice as susceptible to dying in an accident as drivers 18-19 years old.
By contrast, autonomous vehicles at large would immediately create a more equitable age distribution of crash victims — a small moral victory in its own right. More importantly, fleets of self-driving cars gain driving wisdom in unison, and are thereby capable of breaking humanity’s continuous cycle of reintroducing dangerous novice drivers to the traffic mix. Through communication, driverless technology becomes a single cohort that only improves with age, as opposed to our current system, which suffers a never-ending influx of ignorance.
Society refers to traffic collisions as accidents for the same reasons our ancestors saw weather, disease, and outer space as miraculous forces.
The wisdom bestowed by observation and communication would also extend beyond vehicles themselves. By replacing all human drivers with a handful of software programs, we’d marginalize the most complicated variable in crash assessment. A year spent enduring a zero percent improvement in collisions could yield more valuable data on road design flaws, mechanical faults, and maintenance needs than has ever been previously collected. The contributing factors of so many crashes that happen in vain — obfuscated by lack of evidence — would be revealed, leading to safer traffic regardless of whose hands are on the wheel.
The clear divide between human drivers and self-driving tech is not a new paradigm. Society refers to traffic collisions as accidents for the same reasons our ancestors saw weather, disease, and outer space as miraculous forces. Rather than question when self-driving cars will be safe enough for traffic, the public ought to ask itself whether it’s ready to demystify traffic.