The question is whether you can trust an autonomous car, and the answer is not straightforward. From a legal standpoint, it’s unclear who is responsible if one of these cars crashes, with U.S. states implementing differing rules about who is the operator of a car. Sophia Duffy and Jamie Patrick Hopkins argued in a 2013 review that autonomous car owners should be treated in the eyes of the law just like dog owners, in that they can both act independently but are considered property. The question also lingers about how much influence an automaker will have over crash reactions. Mercedes-Benz said in October 2016 that the preference would be to save the driver rather than the pedestrian, as the car has full control over the driver’s life.
It’s a web of ethical and moral questions which may well remain top of mind even after the technology question has been settled. Strategy and Business noted in 2016 that “in the auto industry, there is a major disconnect between expectations and reality,” and autonomous cars could take a lot longer to iron out the kinks than we previously thought. But that definitely doesn’t mean it won’t be worth it.
1. Self-Driving Cars Could Improve Safety
Taking the human out of the equation could save lives. We’ve known this since the 1960s: The Transport and Road Research Laboratory estimated autonomy could prevent around 40 percent of accidents. A more recent report from American personal injury law firm Cooney and Conway, in July 2017, found driverless cars could stop around 90 percent of accidents, save around 300,000 lives per decade, and cut $871 billion in costs from road traffic accidents.
Automated driving has already helped to save lives, even in level 0 cars. Anti-lock braking systems stop a wheel from skidding while braking, using a set of sensors to check for unusual deceleration rates. If a wheel is about to lock and start spinning, it decelerates rapidly, so the system intervenes and reduces brake pressure until it returns to a normal rate.
Level 2 autonomous systems have also shown their worth. Analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows Tesla Autopilot-equipped vehicles, which follow the roads but cannot navigate, deployed their airbags once every 1.3 million miles, while non-Autopilot cars did so every 800,000 miles. This, in part, is thanks to Autopilot’s use of radar to see things even humans can’t see.
“We’re confident we can use radar to look beyond the car in front of you by bouncing radar off the road and around the car,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in September 2016. “So even if there was something that was obscured both by vision and radar we can use the bounce effect of the radar to look beyond that car and still brake.”
These safety benefits have led legislators to rethink existing laws. Australia’s National Transport Commission stated in October 2017 that laws against driving under the influence should be reconsidered in the autonomous age. After all, if a tired person gets into an autonomous pod without a steering wheel and falls asleep, are they really putting anybody in danger?