Even as fully self-driving cars become a reality (in fact, the first fleet of self-driving vehicles without back-up human drivers hit U.S. roadways in November 2017), many folks remain skeptical about the safety of sharing the streets with autonomous drivers. In fact, according to one recent survey, 85 percent of baby boomers and almost 75 percent of millennials admitted that they’d be afraid to ride in an autonomous vehicle. Another 54 percent of drivers would feel less safe sharing the road with an autonomous vehicle. But is there really anything to fear when it comes to machine-driven cars?
The promise of safer roadways
Advocates for self-driving cars promote the idea that computer-driven cars are safer. After all, the thinking goes, autonomous drivers won’t speed, drive drunk, engage in distracted driving, or fall asleep behind the wheel — 4 primary culprits in traffic fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) attributes a staggering 94 percent of all serious crashes to human error. If autonomous drivers can reduce that percentage even a little (and many experts argue they can and will), might they also make us safer? Early findings from pilot programs using fully self-driving cars showed autonomous vehicles had the lowest at-fault driver rate of any driver class on the road.
How do they do it? Driverless cars are gathering information about their environment all the time, constantly adapting to their rapidly changing circumstances. Sensors (including cameras, lasers, radars, and ultrasonic sensors) can detect objects from every direction imaginable, while GPS and mapping technology further help vehicles determine their position. As this data is collected, it flows into the car’s powerful computer system, designed specifically for self-driving, where it’s processed so the autonomous car can react, learn, and ultimately perform better with every new experience.
When human and autonomous drivers collide
In areas where self-driving vehicles are being tested, a worrisome phenomenon has been observed: a number of human-driven vehicles at fault for hitting autonomous vehicles. Early theories for why this is happening focus on the propensity of self-driving vehicles to follow the letter of the law. Always braking for pedestrians in crosswalks, for example. The result? Higher rates of rear-end collisions between self-driving cars and their (possibly less consistently law-abiding) human-driven counterparts.
Fear of new technology
While some jurisdictions are encouraging pilot programs and other deployments for driverless cars, many lawmakers, politicians, and citizens remain wary of introducing the technology too early. Consumer adoption on a large scale will likely take time, as will developing the legal and regulatory measures necessary for self-driving cars to be allowed full access to our highways and byways.
So for now, do your best to take precautions behind the wheel, drive safely, and make sure you have car insurance you trust.