How much safer would our roads be if robots drove ?
Research suggests dramatic reductions in collisions, and severity of injury, with automated cars
A prototype of a Google driverless car. Google Inc is building cars that don’t have steering wheels, accelerator pedals or brake pedals. photograph: reuters/google inc/handout via reuters
Human error is the culprit in 93 per cent of vehicle crashes – including the pile-up last weekend that left comedian Tracy Morgan in critical condition. It was caused, prosecutors say, by a truck driver who had been awake for 24 hours.
Robots, on the other hand, don’t need to sleep. Nor do they get drunk or distracted by mobile phones.
That is why Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist, wrote on Twitter about the accident, with his usual bravado, “Self-driving cars and trucks are a moral imperative.”
How much safer would driving be if robots replaced humans on the roads?
It has been hard to estimate because fully autonomous cars are not yet available to test. Google says its driverless cars have logged more than 700,000 miles without an accident caused by the car, and that its cars do not do unsafe things people do, like sharply accelerating or braking.
But two studies by researchers at Virginia Tech – H Clay Gabler, a professor of biomedical engineering, and Kristofer D Kusano, a research associate – suggest how much safer robot cars might be. They found that even cars that are not fully autonomous but which automate some of the most dangerous aspects of driving could have as big an effect as seatbelts have had.
The studies, sponsored in part by Toyota Motor, analysed the crashes, injuries and fatalities that could have been prevented by cars that alert drivers when they drift out of their lane, or correct the car’s course, and those that sense an impending collision and automatically brake.
They used a representative sample of real-world crashes nationwide and simulated what would have happened had the automation been in place.
They found that lane-departure warning systems would have prevented 30.3 per cent of crashes caused by lane drifting, and 25.8 per cent of the injuries. Rear-end and collision warning systems and automatic braking would have prevented only 3.2 to 7.7 per cent of crashes, but would have reduced their severity. The number of people hurt or killed would have declined in the range of 29 to 50 per cent, the researchers concluded.
By comparison, seatbelts have reduced injuries and fatalities about 50 per cent, and are considered the most beneficial auto safety measure of all time, Gabler said.
Cars with no human involvement at all, like those Google is making, would theoretically take even more of the human error out of driving.
They have drawbacks, though, such as the spectre of robot error. Another drawback is price, which will affect acceptance of the cars.
Even Gabler, who studies this for a living, does not own a car with any automation at all. “I’m an academic, so I don’t drive brand-new expensive things,” he said.
– (New York Times News Service)