Autonomous cars are generating considerable buzz for many reasons, but one of the most dramatic centers on public health: Many say self-driving vehicles could drastically reduce, or even eliminate, the tens of thousands of traffic fatalities that occur annually in the U.S.
Human error plays a role in 94 percent of all traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is why auto makers and regulators believe self-driving vehicles have the potential to be so transformative.
Once driverless cars are on the roads in large numbers, they say, there will be no need for traffic lights because the vehicles will be able to communicate with each other to time when they go through the intersection. The cars will intuitively know what’s a safe speed to travel based on traffic and road conditions, and human errors such as failing to stop at a stop sign or mistakenly driving through a red light will become non-issues.
“Self-driving vehicles are constantly monitoring the roads, and they’re never drunk or distracted,” says Brandon Schoettle, a researcher at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute who studies autonomous driving.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether the safety benefits will pan out as expected and when they will begin. Researchers say it depends on how quickly driverless technology evolves, how long it takes the public to embrace self-driving cars and what happens in the interim—when autonomous cars and those driven by humans are sharing the roads.
Schoettle says there are a huge number of unknowns. He predicts it could be a decade before self-driving vehicles are available for sale and an additional 20 to 30 years before most drivers own them.
“There might be some positives and negatives” during the transition, Mr. Schoettle says, but “the real huge benefit is very far down the road when autonomous vehicles become the norm.”
Tesla’s Autopilot, the semiautonomous driving system that allows Tesla’s cars to steer, brake, cruise and change lanes on their own under certain conditions, came under scrutiny last year after a driver using the technology was killed in a collision with a tractor-trailer on a Florida highway.
“There will never be zero fatalities,” Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk said on a conference call in September. “The world is a very big place and there’s a huge number of people and a huge number of circumstances. It’s really just about minimizing the probability of death, not the illusion of perfect safety.”
In addition to the trust factor there is the issue of cost, especially at a time when Americans are holding on to their cars longer than ever before. The average age of cars and light trucks hit 11.6 years old in 2016, according to IHS Markit, and is expected to continue to increase as the quality of vehicles improves over time. So even after self-driving technology is fully developed, mass adoption of autonomous vehicles still could be a long way off.