Autonomous cars and safety

Tesla’s autonomous driving technology had its first lethal accident in May. The driver’s death is unfortunate and I wish his family and friends my condolences.

Despite the tragedy of the loss, the technology’s first lethal accident provides us with a good opportunity to compare the relative safety of autonomous driving technology and human drivers. In a blog post following the accident, Tesla announced that its autonomous driving technology drove for 130 million miles until its first lethal accident. The same rate for human drivers is 1 lethal accident every 94 miles in the US and 1 accident every 60 miles worldwide.

These figures show that, despite the tragedy of the accident, autonomous driving technology is, even its current initial state, safer than human drivers. It’s important to note that while human drivers are unlikely to become safer, autonomous driving technology is still in its early stages of development and will get safer with time. So autonomous driving technology’s safety advantage will grow larger in the future.

Another important aspect of the accident is that the accident’s description suggests that the party at fault isn’t the Tesla but the tractor trailer with a human driver which “drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S”. So the accident wasn’t caused by the autonomous driving technology, but by a human.

This doesn’t mean that the autonomous driving technology doesn’t have any responsibility. If the Tesla had been driven by a human, perhaps it could have taken action to avoid the collision. So the autonomous driving technology should eventually be able to do the same. And according to Tesla’s automatic braking technology supplier Mobileye’s statement, together with additional detection capabilities which will be live by 2018, this will indeed be the case.

However, what it does mean is that a human driver caused a human in a self-driving car to lose his life. As stated in my post on accessing autonomous electric vehicles, it’s going to be interesting to see how self-driving vehicles and vehicles with human drivers coexist in the future. The former will be safer than the latter so humans using the former are unlikely to want to travel on the same roads as the latter.

Also published on Medium.