How safe is safe?

Pete Kelly, Managing Director

30 October 2018

AV Safety concerns

Safety concerns in AVs – will they be a major barrier to development?

A large proportion of US consumers are not yet ready to embrace self-driving technology because of concerns over safety. In May, a survey by the AAA in the US found that 73% of people would be too afraid to ride in a fully Autonomous Vehicle (AV). This was a reversal of an earlier downward trend – 63% said that they were too afraid one year earlier – with the fatal accident involving an Uber test AV in March 2018 likely to have caused increased concern. AV developers are correct in assuming that the public will accept only the highest safety standards for AVs, much higher than for human-driven vehicles. [Note that in the US, around 40,000 road deaths took place in 2017. This represents an average of over 100 road deaths per day, with most reportedly being caused by human error.] In many other countries, in varying degrees, a similar picture emerges from surveys, with a significant proportion of populations sceptical about AVs.

“A more cavalier approach by any AV developer that resulted in a serious accident would likely lead to a consumer and/or regulatory backlash”

For this reason, testing of ever more capable AVs will have to continue to be done carefully. A more cavalier approach by any AV developer that resulted in a serious accident would likely lead to a consumer and/or regulatory backlash, potentially delaying development for all.

It might therefore be assumed that AV development will be halting and slow, even when true autonomous capabilities begin to mature. But a new factor in the area of safety will inevitably emerge soon – that of real-world data. This will not be data from test AVs, but from millions of real driving miles, involving many vehicles, where lower levels of autonomy can be shown to have improved safety.

Today’s semi-autonomous Level 2, and soon-to-arrive Level 3, vehicles are already collecting information on situations in which accidents have been prevented. Emergency braking systems, where a vehicle detects an upfront obstacle – a stopped line of traffic on a highway, for instance – and applies the brakes safely to save a momentarily distracted driver, is just one example of the many more that will follow.

“73% of people would be too afraid to ride in a fully Autonomous Vehicle”

At the point when this kind of information becomes more widely disseminated, the discourse will likely change and become more sophisticated. Consumers, regulators and lawmakers, as well as the vehicle manufacturers, would then be weighing the net safety benefits of semi-autonomous or fully autonomous vehicles against the ongoing risk of their human-only driven counterparts, for which the safety record is abysmal.

At LMC Automotive, we see many reasons to doubt the rapid uptake of fully autonomous vehicles in the future. But it seems likely that consumer safety concerns will not, ultimately, be one of them.