Truly autonomous vehicles are, it’s fair to say, still some way off from being sold and used on the roads.
While it’s true that we’re getting ever closer to overcoming the technological hurdles in our way, regulations are such that allowing fully-autonomous vehicles onto the roads is difficult.
Yet a new study has claimed that self-driving cars only have to be moderately better than human drivers before they could start saving lives.
The report, published by non-profit organisation the RAND Corporation, has found that if we allowed the use of self-driving cars that were just 10% better than current American drivers it could prevent thousands of deaths over the next 15 years.
This is compared to waiting until cars are at least 75% or 95% better than their human counterparts.
The study came up with the figures by estimating future road fatalities over hundreds of different futures while taking into account the numerous safety requirements for autonomous vehicles to be introduced.
While carmakers are testing the water with semi-autonomous systems like Tesla’s Autopilot, very few are capable of achieving self-driving outside of a pre-determined environment e.g. Motorways.
Despite this, the study argues that even rolling them out en masse in their current form could still prove to be a safer decision than not.
“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.”
Of course it’s nowhere near as simple as just putting driverless cars on the road, there’s public opinion to consider as well.
You see while statistically, driverless cars could be safer, they do still have vulnerabilities. While they can’t get tired, or drive while drunk they can be vulnerable to cyber attacks or struggle with complex traffic scenarios.
“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.
Groves and the other authors are hoping that by showing the sheer size of the numbers that could be saved by early-adoption of this technology then policymakers and automotive companies will be more willing to push ahead with driverless cars.