Every time there is a failure of an autonomous vehicle, it makes front-page news. We are concerned about the development of this new technology and reluctant to trust our safety on the roads to AI we don’t understand. But how “unsafe” are these autonomous vehicles, exactly?
At this time, there have been nearly 200 hundred accidents involving autonomous vehicles in the United States, including a few which resulted in fatalities. It should be noted that, though the accidents all involved autonomous vehicles, most were under direct or partial control of an operator at the time of the accident.
Probably the most notable of these accidents took place in The Woodlands, TX, in April of 2021, and involved a Tesla vehicle. Though local law enforcement insisted that no one was driving the vehicle, an NTSB investigation disagreed, with security footage and deformity of the steering wheel indicating the driver’s seat was occupied.
Another crash occurred in November of 2018, when an Uber-owned vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian. Though this vehicle had a safety driver, the driver was apparently watching streaming television and was unable to avoid the accident as a result. The end result of the accident was the closure of Uber’s self-driving car development.
In fact, of 187 reports of AV accidents, just two could be attributed to poor systems performance, as opposed to operator error or neglect. By comparison, in 2016, the Department of Transportation reported over 35,000 deaths due to vehicular accidents. The data from the department claims more than 90% of these deaths were associated with human error.
This is not to say that all the bugs have been worked out, of course. In Phoenix, AZ, an autonomous vehicle operated by Waymo was somehow “confused” by a construction zone, resulting in the car blocking a busy intersection. Attempts to recover the vehicle by a technical team then resulted in the vehicle driving away. (The car was eventually recovered.)
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