Self-Driving Cars Aren't As Safe As You Think, Warns IIHS

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5,000 police-reported accidents were examined in new study.

In a perfect world, there would be no fatal car accidents. Manufacturers like Volvo are working towards this goal, with a recent announcement that all of its cars will have a limited top speed of 112 mph. From the customer side, many drivers have put their faith into autonomous driving technologies, with one electric vehicle owner even saying he could have avoided a crash had he switched on his Tesla Model 3's Autopilot system.

But a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) suggests that we shouldn't be overly optimistic about advanced technologies significantly reducing car accidents, especially with regards to fully autonomous vehicles.

Volvo
Mercedes
IIHS/YouTube

Analysis by the safety body indicated that "driver error is the final failure in the chain of events leading to more than 9 out of 10 crashes." Of those crashes, self-driving vehicles would only be able to avoid about a third. "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," said Jessica Cicchino, the IIHS vice president for research and also a co-author of the study.

As part of the study, 5,000 police-reported accidents were investigated. The driver behaviors that caused each crash were divided into categories such as "execution and performance", "incapacitation", and "sensing and perceiving". The researchers envisioned the same events leading up to these accidents, but removed drivers from the equation and used only self-driving cars to plot what might happen.

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Tesla
IIHS via YouTube
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Ultimately, a fully autonomous vehicle would need to be uniquely programmed to avoid some of the common driver-related decision-making and predicting errors. In many cases, these vehicles prioritize convenience and speed, not the evasive actions needed to avoid an accident.

"Our analysis shows that it will be crucial for designers to prioritize safety over rider preferences if autonomous vehicles are to live up to their promise to be safer than human drivers", said Alexandra Mueller, an IIHS Research Scientist. Equally concerning is how innovations like adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning are negatively impacting driver attentiveness. For now, the best thing we can all do is keep our hands on the steering wheel and our eyes on the road, even if the car can do both of those things for us.

IIHS via YouTube
IIHS via YouTube
IIHS via YouTube

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