Autonomous Vehicles: Are They Safer?

by Staff Writer on May 29, 2013

Imagine this scenario: It’s Friday night. You’ve had too much to drink, but you’ve got to get home, one way or another. You could rely on a designated driver, use a cab or public transportation, or make the unfortunate (and potentially deadly) decision to drive home drunk. Soon, you may have another option: your very own car could drive you home safely.

That’s the future we may experience with driverless cars, a movement popularized by search giant Google. These robot cars are poised to save 30,000 lives every year on U.S. highways, and prevent two million injuries. Are they the future of safe driving? And, what do these cars mean for the future of auto insurance?

Advanced Safety Features

Google’s Self Driving Cars aren’t enjoying widespread use just yet. Yet the future of safe, automated driving is already here.

Designed to prevent crashes rather than simply protect passengers, advanced safety features are reducing the necessity of human control in driving. You may already be familiar with a few of them: anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and even adaptive headlights that help illuminate dark curves.

Anti-lock brakes are a great example of car safety technology that does what humans can’t possibly do themselves. This feature keeps brakes from locking up during extreme stops, rapidly pumping the brakes at a rate that maintains maximum brake performance, just short of locking up the wheels. Done rapidly with electronics, ABS pumps the brakes safely, and much faster than you’d be able to.

But anti-lock brakes, while still a valuable safety feature, are old news. There’s a new generation of active safety features that are already available in cars today:

  • Electronic stability control uses sensors and a microcomputer to prevent skidding and loss of control that can lead to rollovers. This feature has been shown to reduce fatal crash involvement risk by 33%, a life saving tool for vehicles.
  • Forward collision avoidance warns drivers if they’re likely to crash with traffic ahead of them. In some systems with adaptive cruise control, the car will also brake autonomously, applying brake pressure if the driver doesn’t respond quickly enough. In a study of luxury vehicle insurance claims, models with forward collision systems including automatic braking had 14% lower property damage liability than those that did not have the feature.
  • Emergency brake assist responds to signs of panic braking, applying the brake more quickly and with more force than drivers are able to. In Europe and Japan, where emergency brake assist systems have been in use for more than a decade, this feature has proven its potential as a resource for casualty reduction.
  • Blind spot warning and avoidance uses sensors to detect vehicles in blind spots, where you may not see them. In some cars, this system is also equipped with technology known as blind spot avoidance, applying selective braking to avoid sideswipe accidents.
  • Lane departure systems alert inattentive drivers when they begin to drift into other lanes, or off the road, potentially allowing them to snap back to reality and stay safely in their lane. But, it seems that this feature needs more work, as research from the IIHS indicates that vehicles with these systems have not had a decrease in accidents, but have actually shown an increase in crashes. It’s believed that users ignore or shut off the alerts, which can be frequent even in normal driving.

The benefits of these advanced safety features are well documented, yet some drivers find them to be confusing or annoying. For example. IIHS believes that after too many false alarms, drivers may be turning off their lane departure warning systems. Still, the NHTSA highlights safety features like electronic stability control and forward collision warning as life saving advances in vehicle technology.

Autonomous Cars: The Future of Car Safety

Electronic stability control reduces fatal crash involvement risk by 33%. Luxury cars equipped with forward collision systems including automatic braking boast a 14% lower property damage liability. Active safety features such as these have saved lives and prevented accidents, but there’s always room for improvement. What’s coming to the car of the future? It’s likely to be a car that drives itself safer than humans ever could.

A self driving car takes active safety features to an entirely new level. Instead of supplementing drivers’ skills, this system allows drivers to hand the keys over to their own vehicles. With a car that drives itself, actions that are currently very dangerous, like drunk driving or text messaging behind the wheel, become innocuous. Human error and distraction would be eliminated. Cars that communicate and optimize driving could stop traffic before it starts, saving hours of drive time while also cutting down on pollution. We could enable the elderly and disabled to drive again. We might even send autonomous vehicles to war zones.

Google is leading the way in the development of autonomous vehicles. These self-driving cars operate as a sort of full-featured cruise control. Using sensors, cameras, and a smart system, Google’s vehicles are able to accelerate, brake, turn, and even sense the movements of other vehicles. Just like cruise control, the driver is able to turn this control on and off, taking the wheel when they feel more comfortable driving than allowing the car to take the task.

Auto makers have taken their own steps to explore autonomous vehicles as well. Ford has conducted safety research using sensors and car-to-car anonymous communications. Audi has already begun testing automated vehicles in Nevada with features like automated parking, which with the use of a smartphone would allow a car to valet itself in a parking structure. As a luxury car maker, Audi’s vehicles already have extensive active safety features, so it’s not stretch to ask those features to talk to each other and become automated.

The technology is promising, but it’s too early to plan for your car to chauffeur you home this weekend. Autonomous cars still need a lot of development before they’re ready hit the consumer market. Google’s engineers are working to perfect single-lane highway driving right now, but that’s an easy task compared to what real driving looks like. City driving, even merging onto the freeway will be more difficult for Google’s engineers to master. Bad weather is also a challenge for Google’s cars, as the sensors have difficulty seeing road markings through conditions like snow.

In addition to engineering hurdles, autonomous vehicles face a larger challenge: human drivers. We just don’t want to give up control. Toyota offers adaptive cruise control on its vehicles, keeping cars at a safe distance without using gas or brake pedals. It’s useful technology, but drivers have found it very difficult not to touch the pedals anyway.

Is it Safer?

As Google and car makers develop this technology, the biggest question is: will automation make driving safer? We know that active safety features like electronic stability control and braking assist can save lives. Does that safety continue without a real brain behind the wheel?

Autonomous vehicles are still very new, but technology and testing indicates that they have great potential for improving safety. This makes sense, as human error is to blame for 95% of all accidents. Google’s robot cars have semi-autonomously driven 500,000 miles without a crash, suggesting that cars themselves may be the perfect drivers in the future.

In an interview with NPR, Jeremy Anwyl of advises that automated cars do have potential in mundane and predictable driving tasks. These include parking, or the single-lane freeway driving that Google has done well with so far. But Anwyl believes humans have an advantage when it comes to the unpredictable. “We deal with ambiguity or unexpected situations much better than machines,” said Anwyl.

Autonomous cars have their advantages among the unexpected as well. During testing, a pedestrian between two parked cars went unnoticed by Google engineers, but the car noticed, and slowed down to allow him to pass safely.

Insurance for Autonomous Cars

If autonomous driving makes cars safer, does that mean insurance premiums will go down? Possibly. We know that active safety features like forward collision systems are associated with a reduction in claims, so there’s serious potential for insurance savings with self-driving vehicles.

But will we need car insurance at all? If you’re not driving when an accident occurs, is it your fault? Under current Nevada law, where Google’s car is licensed, the person in the driver’s seat is responsible, as they can override and drive manually. Others believe that auto insurance as we know it may be replaced with manufacturer liability.

A zero accident rate may be possible in the future, but it’s not coming soon. It will take years, maybe decades, for autonomous vehicles to replace regular ones on the road, and during this time, we’ll have a mix of self-driving and human-driven vehicles. Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute doesn’t expect to see insurance rates plummet as autonomous cars are introduced to the road. “As long as there are vehicles on the roadways, there are likely to be accidents,” says Barry.

Also, collisions aren’t the only claims made on auto insurance. Insurance events can include parked cars, so it’s still possible that a tree can fall on your car, or flooding can damage your vehicle, sticking you with major expenses without the help of insurance.

Advanced safety features have saved many lives, and it seems that autonomous vehicles stand to save even more. But when? While auto makers have a more conservative estimate of how long it will take to bring autonomous cars to the market (30 years), Google is much more optimistic, promising to make self-driving vehicles available in less than five years. That means your next car might just be one that drives itself.

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