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Safety in the fast lane. Why driverless cars are raising the bar on safety.

Once found only in science fiction novels and movies, the self-driving car is now a reality.

Google, Tesla and ride-share giant Uber are all testing vehicles steered by software, not human drivers. General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo and other major automakers are also developing self-driving cars.

As the prototypes move from laboratory to city streets, many question their safety. But cars without drivers could actually be safer than those driven by humans.

More than 40,000 Americans died in car accidents in 2015, the deadliest year since 2008.1

Man, not machine, was responsible for many of those fatalities. Roughly 40% of the accidents involved alcohol.2

So far, self-driving cars have a better track record.

Imagine driving without DUI or driver fatigue

What makes the new vehicles so safe? Self-driving car technology eliminates many human factors that cause accidents.

Unlike human drivers, computers don’t get distracted by conversation, a favorite song on the radio or spectacular scenery. Reckless driving, speeding, drugs, alcohol and lack of sleep are never a problem.

Software piloting a vehicle operates efficiently at every time of day in any road condition. That consistency offers a major safety advantage.

Google cites safety as key advantage of driverless cars

Google’s Self Driving Car Project includes prototype and modified Lexus vehicles. Since 2009, the self-driven cars have traveled more than 1.5 million miles over the streets of Mountain View, CA, Austin, TX, Kirkland, WA and Metro Phoenix, AZ.

Test data collected is extremely positive. So far the only problems have come from human drivers in traditional vehicles.2 By mid 2015, Google cars had been involved in only 16 accidents – none of which were caused by the vehicles.3

What makes machines safer than human drivers?

Self-driving vehicles are equipped with multiple sensors. In a sense, they truly do have “eyes in the back of their heads.”  No obstacle goes unnoticed. Sensors constantly scan the roadway for hazards. If an obstacle is detected, the vehicle brakes to slow or stop and avoids impending collisions.

The sensors enable the driverless cars to change lanes easily and safely, without the limitations of human “blind spots.”  Satellite navigation keeps the vehicles safely on course, with no arguing about directions.

Challenges beyond safety

Computers operate using logic based on assumptions about human behavior. However, humans aren’t as predictable as machines, which complicates matters.

As driverless car technology evolves, complex programming decisions will have to be made. For instance, when facing an unavoidable collision, a car’s computer must learn whether to protect its passengers or innocent pedestrians. That decision-making ability is not as easily programmed as automatic braking.

Driverless cars will also have to earn the trust of pedestrians, cyclists and joggers.2 And, of course, there’s the question of liability. Who is at fault when a driverless vehicle causes an accident?4 Much remains to sort out.

New U.S. Government Safety Regulations established for driverless vehicles

In September, 2016, the U.S. Government announced long-awaited safety standards for self-driving vehicles. The 15-point plan is an attempt to balance commercial and public safety interests.

The goal of the standards is to keep people safe as self-driving vehicles become more common.  The plan will help establish interstate standards. The new regulations are a recognition that self-driving vehicles are an important new trend. That means greater safety for all motorists in the future.

Learn More:

Stopping Distance Calculation

Sources:

  1. What is a Safe Following Distance?  (driversprep.com)

  2. Stopping Distance Formula (softschools.com)

  3. Following distance (driversed.com)

  4. Stopping Distance: Is the 3-Second Rule Wrong?  (esurance.com)

  5. Speed, speed limits and stopping distances   (brake.org.uk)

  6. Following distances  (driveandstayalive.com)

Additional Sources:

Know Your Stopping Distances – It Could Save Your Life 

(excessivelocity.com)

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