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June 16, 2020

Do self-driving cars reduce the number of crashes on our roads?

Those who are expecting autonomous vehicles to lower collisions may not get the results they were hoping for, according to a new report.

A new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) suggests that self-driving vehicles might only prevent about one-third of all collisions.

The IIHS studied about 5,000 crashes and found that 24% of those came from sensing and perceiving errors — things like impeded visibility, distracted driving, and failing to recognize hazards early. Another 10% were incapacitation — impaired driving, medical emergencies or falling asleep behind the wheel.

“Those crashes might be avoided if all vehicles on the road were self-driving — though it would require sensors that worked perfectly and systems that never malfunctioned,” the report said.

However, we’re still many years away from autonomous vehicles taking over our roads. The Automotive Industries Association of Canada estimated in a 2019 report that full driving automation of vehicles is expected around 2030.

Right now, autonomous vehicles do a good job at obeying red lights and speed limits, but there’s still work to be done when adapting to road conditions and applying strategy to account for uncertainty about what other drivers will do.

“It’s likely that fully self-driving cars will eventually identify hazards better than people, but we found that this alone would not prevent the bulk of crashes,” says Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president for research and a co-author of the report.

Another study from the IIHS showed that 9 out of 10 crashes were the result of driver error and about a third of those were the result of mistakes that autonomous vehicles would be expected to avoid. “To avoid the other two-thirds, automated vehicles would need to be specifically programmed to prioritize safety over speed and convenience,” the report noted.

Self-driving cars will never be perfect, but as the technology continues to evolve, it’s likely that autonomous cars will make driving safer for drivers and pedestrians… eventually.


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