Report: autonomous vehicles can’t yet be deemed safe

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

A new report by California-based a nonprofit research organization RAND Corporation says driverless cars can’t be declared safe anytime soon.

The report, released Tuesday, concluded autonomous vehicles would have to be driven hundreds of billions of miles to show that they’re more reliable and safer than cars operated by humans.

“Our results show that developers of this technology and third-party testers cannot drive their way to safety,” Nidhi Kalra, co-author of the study and a senior scientist at RAND, said in a statement. “It’s going to be nearly impossible for autonomous vehicles to log enough test-driving miles on the road to statistically demonstrate their safety, when compared to the rate at which injuries and fatalities occur in human-controlled cars and trucks.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says more than 90 percent of car crashes are caused by human errors such as driving too fast, alcohol impairment, distraction and fatigue. NHTSA officials said driverless cars could eventually lead to zero traffic fatalities, but RAND’s report call that unlikely.

“Researchers acknowledge autonomous vehicles may not eliminate all crashes,” the report said. “For instance, inclement weather and complex driving environments pose challenges for autonomous vehicles, as well as for human drivers, and autonomous vehicles might perform worse than human drivers in some cases.”

The report notes that Americans drive nearly 3 trillion miles every year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2013, there were 2.3 million injuries reported, which equals 77 injuries per 100 million miles driven, and about 1 death per 100 million miles driven.

There simply isn’t enough data from driverless cars.

“The most autonomous miles any developer has logged are about 1.3 million, and that took several years,” said Susan M. Paddock, co-author of the study and senior statistician at RAND. “This is important data, but it does not come close to the level of driving that is needed to calculate safety rates. Even if autonomous vehicle fleets are driven 10 million miles, one still would not be able to draw statistical conclusions about safety and reliability.”

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