In a 2018 Medium article, the author, a self-described as high-performance driving instructor, professional driver and race car driver, proclaimed: “A self-driving car will never be able to make the split-second decisions that can save a life.” She continues: “I wouldn’t ever sit my butt in a self-driving car. I will never trust them. Ever.”
The article was written in 2018 and the author was probably right then. She is probably right today, despite the usual hoopla about self-driving cars at CES 2020.
But I suspect the author’s statement will go down in history as yet another “famous last words.”
True, autonomous vehicles are still not as capable as experienced human drivers, especially under less-than-perfect weather conditions. It’s also true that the crash rate of autonomous cars is more than double that of experienced human drivers (9 vs. 4 crashes per million miles driven), although more than half of those were rear-end collisions, presumably by a human-operated car.
But despite the crashes and fatalities caused by autonomous cars, we expect continuous improvement in safety systems such as advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and, eventually, Level 4 and Level 5 cars to continue and eventually get to the point that autonomous vehicles can be trusted.
About 40,000 people are killed in car accidents in the US every year (1.3 million worldwide), and many more are critically injured. Nearly all accidents are caused by human errors. Furthermore, autonomous vehicles will provide vital service to people with disabilities and a fast-growing aging population.
The carnival barkers at CES have you believe that autonomous cars will become mainstream soon and will reduce crashes and ease congestion. The actual number of autonomous cars on public roads is going to be disappointingly small.
And despite impressive strides in ADAS and autonomous operation technologies, which will continue in the new decade, the ultimate goal of reliable and adaptable operation continues to get farther away. And the transitional period will not only be long, it will not be without collateral cost, in part because of over-reliance on the technology and increased driver complacency and carelessness, which is already getting some legislative attention. Even pranking of self-driving cars is becoming a growing concern.