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New Google Report Indicates Higher Crash Rates for Self-Driving Vehicles

January 28, 2016

Self-driven cars have been lauded by motor vehicle safety experts, vehicle manufacturers, and others as a monumental step forward in making roadways safer. However, the enthusiasm for these new innovations has been tempered by concerns about potential accident risks, such as hackers, software bugs, and system malfunctions. These concerns appear to be warranted given new information indicating that human intervention might be necessary to prevent collisions involving cars on auto-pilot. A report released by Google Auto on January 13 indicates that despite the risks associated with human error, intervention by drivers plays an important role in keeping roadways safe.

The new report provides details about driver "disengagement" of their vehicles' autonomous driving mode during testing on public roads in California. Humans had to take back control of vehicles in the self-driving test fleet of vehicles 341 times while the cars traveled 424,000 miles. These documented "disengagements" fall into two categories: (1) when safe operation of the car mandates the driver take control of the vehicle; or (2) a failure of the autonomous mode is identified. Google further disclosed that eleven of the incidents would have resulted in a collision if the auto-pilot feature had not been disengaged.

This new information comes in the wake of findings earlier this year that self-driving vehicles are involved in auto accidents at rates five times higher than those involving human motorists. Even after the researchers adjusted for the failure of drivers in accidents involving human operators to report accidents, the accident rate for self-driven vehicles was still double that of conventional vehicles. The authors of the study did caution that the number of self-driven vehicles and miles traveled is miniscule compared to those of conventional cars with human drivers. While the accident rate for self-driving vehicles also was found to be four times higher, the severity of the injuries tended to be minor.

The researchers involved in this University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study also noted that the autonomous driving vehicles have not been documented to be "at-fault" in any of the collisions to this point. However, the vehicles are more prone to involved in an auto accident and to cause injury, albeit less severe injuries, than the average human piloted vehicle. Speculation regarding this unexpected outcome focuses on the fact that the vehicles often fail to respond adequately to unanticipated driving errors by motorists.

Google has emphasized that the data regarding disengagements is an important part of its safety testing. As a company spokesperson told media sources, the information gathered about disengagements allows us to troubleshoot potential issues and hone the autonomous driving system to reduce the risk of crashes and injuries.

Lawmakers currently attempting to design legal standards that protect the public prior to self-driving vehicles saturating the open market will need to look closely at such studies. States including Georgia will have to face important questions regarding the appropriate degree of control and readiness that should be expected of "drivers" in these vehicles. Some have suggested that the driver might be able to engage in activities like reading a newspaper or surfing the internet on a laptop computer while others have suggested that the motorist remain in position to immediately grab the steering wheel and focus full attention on the road ahead. While the latter option certainly seems safer, companies designing autonomous vehicles might find this approach unappealing because it diminishes the benefits of the autonomous driving feature.

Ultimately, the prospect of discouraging the operation of motor vehicles by intoxicated, distracted, and otherwise careless drivers is an appealing idea, but recent studies suggest we cannot assume this will eliminate crashes that result in serious injuries. Lawsuits for injuries involving failure of a self-driving vehicle to prevent a reasonably avoidable crash might result in a rise in product liability lawsuits against vehicle manufacturers.

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Category: Auto Accidents

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