How safe are self-driving cars?

Driverless car

With last year's autumn budget announcing the investment in driverless cars and testing already underway in the UK, the idea of vehicles without a driver is becoming far more likely on roads in the UK.

The Chancellor himself expects these vehicles to be more commonplace on roads by 2021, which is only a few years away.

In Scotland, the Government are planning to phase out new petrol and diesel cars by 2032 and there is a good chance that most of these new vehicles will be driverless in some way.

Currently from what we know about the technology and vehicles that are being tested, there are certain safety and legal implications that need to be considered.

Reduce road traffic accidents by removing human error

93% of car accidents are caused by human error. By removing this factor, it is thought that by 2030 driverless vehicles could save over 2,500 lives and prevent more than 25,000 serious accidents in the UK alone.

As well as the positive impact on our safety, the reduced number of accidents should also reduce the premiums that drivers pay to insurance companies – if they pass these savings along to their customers.

Similarly, it is thought that driverless cars should be able to travel closer together to reduce the number of traffic jams and make journeys more efficient. This should have beneficial implications for road safety as it will reduce driver frustration and distracted driving.

Will driverless cars mean no more road accidents?

While the number of accidents should be reduced it is impossible to say that there will be no risk involved in using a driverless vehicle.

Waymo (owned by Google) is very much at the forefront of testing driverless vehicles. With over 4 million miles driven on public roads their statistics show that the majority of the small number of accidents their vehicles have been involved in are the cause of human error.

This is mainly through rear end collisions from other road users and have led to a significantly small number of minor injuries.

They claim that there is only a single accident where the car was in a fully autonomous mode where it was partly to blame for a collision in which there were no injuries.

Driverless technology already here

Many cars already on the road have some form of driverless capabilities, particularly on motorways, allowing the driver to let the car control itself.

Car manufacturers do emphasise that if these features are used, the driver still needs to remain alert and be ready to take over.

However there has already been a case of a fatality when a car failed to register a white vehicle against a bright sky and in turn failed to slow down causing a fatal accident for the driver.

Accidents with driverless cars – who is at fault?

In the event that an accident in a driverless vehicle is inevitable and there will be multiple casualties it will be up to the car to decide the moral dilemma as to who should be potentially saved. This is something that will need to be determined in the programming stage.

Liability for an accident is also a difficult subject as currently it is the fault of the driver. However, this could become more complicated when the vehicle is driving itself.

Who is at fault? It could be seen as the responsibility of the passenger, the manufacturer or even the individual who programmed the car. The insurance for these vehicles will need to change and already the industry is considering these implications.

Reliant on up to date technology

Driverless vehicles will rely heavily on technology to get them from A to B, but also to communicate and understand the world around them.

They will rely on maps that will need to be highly accurate to ensure that there are no errors in the route required. GPS satellites will need to be highly accurate and reliable too. It will be essential that these systems are kept up to date, and in an ever-changing world currently they become outdated very quickly.

Any errors or changes in map locations has the potential to result in an accident. The opportunity is there for the vehicle to incorrectly plan the required route and potentially drive into oncoming traffic.

Security from hackers

Likewise the security required for these vehicles will need to be incredibly secure and it will be essential that driverless cars are not vulnerable to hackers. Otherwise, it could put passengers at risk or allow individuals or terrorist organisations the ability to control cars remotely putting the public at risk.

With driverless cars set to be on our roads over the next few years it is likely that there will be numerous changes still to come.

But with so much investment from the Government the likelihood is that it won’t be long before like mobile phones they become commonplace in society and we can’t imagine a world without them.