Introducing autonomous vehicles sooner could save hundreds of thousands of lives over time
According to a new Rand Corporation report, autonomous vehicles only have to be moderately better than human drivers to save thousands of lives annually, even before the technology is perfected.
The study says that allowing wide use of autonomous vehicles when they are just 10% better than current American drivers could prevent thousands of road fatalities over the next 15 years and possibly hundreds of thousands of fatalities over 30 years, researchers found, compared to waiting until they are 75% or 90% better.
The calculations were made by estimating road fatalities over time under hundreds of different plausible futures and different safety requirements for autonomous vehicle introduction.
“Our work suggests that it is sensible to allow autonomous vehicles on America's roads when they are judged to be just moderately safer than having a person behind the wheel,” said Nidhi Kalra, co-author of the study and Director of Rand's San Francisco office. “If we wait until these vehicles are nearly perfect, our research suggests the cost will be many thousands of needless vehicle crash deaths caused by human mistakes. It's the very definition of perfect being the enemy of good.”
Researchers acknowledge that even if autonomous vehicles are proven safer than the average human driver, the vehicles would still cause crashes. They remain vulnerable to other hazards, such as inclement weather, complex traffic situations, and even cyber-attacks.
“This may not be acceptable because society may be less tolerant of mistakes made by machines than of mistakes made by people,” said David Groves, study co-author and Co-Director of Rand's Water and Climate Resilience Center. “But if we can accept that early self-driving cars will make some mistakes—but fewer than human drivers—developers can use early deployment to more rapidly improve self-driving technology, even as their vehicles save lives.”
Kalra hopes the study will enable policymakers and the public to better weigh potential risks and benefits of autonomous vehicles. Key considerations include how to measure the safety of the vehicles and what should constitute a passing grade.
The report builds upon past research that found road testing under real traffic conditions is impractical for proving autonomous vehicle safety prior to deployment because it would take decades or longer to drive the requisite miles.
The report, “The Enemy of Good: Estimating the Cost of Waiting for Nearly Perfect Automated Vehicles,” is available at www.rand.org, along with a video and an interactive tool on the research.