Autonomous Cars: How Safe Is Safe Enough?

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Autonomous cars are coming. Every major car company knows they will need to have self-driving cars soon. A few years ago, a spate of startups promised exciting new developments in electric cars. Today’s startups are all about building autonomous cars. Why so much focus on autonomy?

autonomous Chevy Bolt

The reason most companies give is safety. People do stupid things behind the wheel every day. They drink alcohol or do drugs before they climb behind the wheel. They allow their passions to become inflamed, leading to road rage. They take their eyes off the road to discipline rambunctious kids in the back seat. They text, program their navigation systems, or even fall asleep. They do everything, it seems, which interferes with driving.

As a result, more than 40,000 Americans die in highway accidents every year — 10 times more than the NYC death toll on September 11, 2001. Worldwide, more than a million people are killed in car crashes each year. Autonomous driving advocates like Elon Musk insist driver assistance programs like Tesla’s Autopilot are safer than human drivers right now. But as the number of stories about Tesla vehicles slamming into the back of emergency vehicles increases, many are starting to wonder whether self-driving cars today truly are ready for the prime time. (Again, Elon Musk says Tesla will start reporting data related to Autopilot. Once the company does, we’ll see how complete the data are and how much is left to the imagination.)

The second reason for the intense interest in autonomous vehicles is money. Self-driving cars could theoretically replace most of the taxis, limousines, and ride-hailing vehicles with robot-like cars that would pick people up where they are and take them where they need to go — for a fee, of course. A recent story in the South China Morning Post estimates the mobility market in China alone will be worth $500 billion by 2030. That’s a pretty big number and more than enough to attract the attention of entrepreneurs who want to cash in on an emerging market.

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Waymo has just ordered 62,000 self driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vans to go with the 20,000 autonomous Jaguar I-PACE electric SUVs it also plans to buy. Clearly, it intends to be at the forefront of the industry, but so do Mobileye, Tencent, and a host of other companies.

Software engineers and industry leaders like Elon Musk like to debate how safe is safe. Musk is combative when it comes to this subject, practically accusing journalists who say bad things about Autopilot of being complicit in any deaths that result from people choosing not to activate their Autopilot systems. He says any reduction in highway fatalities is a good thing and it’s hard to argue against him on that subject.

Waymo autonomous vanBut others disagree. Amnon Shashua, CEO of Mobileye, told Reuters recently that 40 deaths a year while riding in an autonomous car would be acceptable. That is several orders of magnitude less than the current rate of traffic fatalities. To him, cutting deaths by 50% is not an acceptable result. Musk seems to have a higher tolerance in this regard than Shashua and would probably be delighted to cut the death rate by half, although he has never said so publicly.

Researchers in China were curious what the public thinks on the subject of acceptable fatalities. Peng Liu and Run Yang of Tianjin University and Zhigang Xu of Chang’an University asked 499 people in the city of Tianjin to rate the level of risk they were willing to accept when it comes to riding in a car with a human driver or a self-driving car. The tolerance for risk was expressed either in terms of fatalities per kilometers driven or fatalities per population size. Respondents were asked to accept or reject each traffic risk scenario at one of four levels — never accept, hard to accept, easy to accept, or fully accept, according to Science Daily.

The results have been published recently in the journal Risk Analysis. The researchers found that people are willing to accept autonomous vehicles if they are 4 to 5 times safer than a car with a human driver. In other words, they should be able to reduce the danger of death or injury while driving by 75% to 80% — more than Shashua wants, less than Musk seems happy with.

In other words, people are comfortable with the idea of self-driving vehicles if the risk factor is roughly the same as it is today for other public modes of transportation such as buses, railroads, and airplanes. “Our results and method may help government authorities to establish clear safety requirements for regulating  self driving vehicles and also help manufacturers meet consumers’ expectations for [such vehicles],” says Peng Liu, who is an assistant professor of industrial engineering.

The study does something not often done up to this point — ask the people who will use autonomous vehicles what level of safety they expect. If the cars that companies offer are viewed as not safe enough by the general public, then the business model that promises ginormous profits to companies who want to sell self-driving cars to the public or who intend to offer self-driving ride-hailing/robotaxi services has some serious holes in it. If autonomous vehicles are riskier than what the public has come to expect from buses, trains, and airplanes, there is a good chance people will refuse to use them.

The first rule of business is, “Give the customer what the customer wants.” What do the customers actually want? What will they want in 3 years or 5 years? We would love to hear your own thoughts on this subject.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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