Self-driving car zero death claim ‘not realistic’

  • February 10, 2015

A new report by the University of Michigan warns that self-driving cars will not be a panacea for road deaths, and could even worsen road safety for other drivers during the long transition period. ETSC says policymakers should focus on driver assistance technologies that could save lives today, rather than just looking at technology which is still years away from mass deployment.

Technology companies are rushing to invest in autonomous vehicle projects with Apple, Sony and Uber all reportedly establishing significant research efforts in recent months.  Most major car manufacturers are also testing various levels of automation. Volvo confirmed this month that it will test 100 self-driving cars on the streets of Gothenburg from 2017.

The authors of the University of Michigan report look at the potential implications of self-driving vehicles interacting with human drivers. Drivers today often use eye contact and proceed according to visual feedback from other road users. This feedback would be absent in interactions with self-driving vehicles. The implications of this lack of feedback have yet to be studied but could worsen road safety for conventional drivers according to the report.

The study also points out that current self-driving car prototypes are not able to cope with fog, snow or heavy rain because of the limitations of current sensing technology. The authors also question the ability of an autonomous vehicle to negotiate unusual road users such as horses or situations where police or construction crews are required to direct traffic.  Obstacles such as a flooded road or downed power line are also expected to prove problematic for years to come, according to the researchers.

Commenting on the study, Antonio Avenoso, Executive Director of ETSC said:

“It’s important that policymakers cut through the hype surrounding self-driving vehicles and start to assess the wider implications of this technology. In the medium term, we see huge potential for driver assistance systems such as intelligent speed assistance and autonomous emergency braking to save thousands of lives. An EU-backed push for these kinds of technologies today will help prepare drivers, as well as the automotive industry, for a future when self-driving cars become a reality. But, as this research highlights, that day is still a long way off. We need to remain focused on how we can save lives this year, not just in 10 or 20 years.”

Download the study