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Driverless Cars: Are They Really Safer?

It sounds like something out of a movie about the future: millions of Americans sitting behind the wheel of a car, talking, texting, eating, reading, working, putting on makeup or doing one of many other activities, besides actually driving the car. Driverless cars, also referred to as robot cars or autonomous vehicles, are already permitted (under restricted conditions and times) to be on roadways in certain states.

The Government Accountability Organization (GAO) recently released a report that zoned in on the limited measures the government has taken to ensure the safety of driverless cars. The report discusses concerns held by many, including the results of a study that showed most Americans don’t want to be a passenger in a driverless car, nor do they want to be on the same roads and highways as someone else with this type of vehicle.

Software No Match for Human Instinct
The GAO report also addresses the shaky security associated with computer-based systems responsible for operating a two ton piece of machinery. Computers, although an amazing piece of technology, still have their problems. Software frequently needs updates, systems malfunction and have outages, and hackers have found ways to bypass encryption. A December article by Fair Warning, a safety-focused consumer news organization, questions why Americans shouldn’t be worried about terrorist groups hacking into car systems and using cars as devices for destruction. It’s a valid concern, given that there have been at least 7 car-related acts of terrorism both at home and abroad this past year alone.

Furthermore, the Fair Warning article questions how a computer can account for unexpected situations in which there are no good solutions. If a driver is faced with a deer darting into the road, how would the computer recognize a deer vs. a person? What if in that same scenario the road was icy, a bridge was on one side and a cliff was on another? How does the computer know which route to take that would best preserve the lives of those involved?

While automotive experts are pushing driverless vehicles, saying that they have the potential to save 40,000 lives a year, what would the true number of lives saved or lost be if they accounted for the very real possibility of computer-error?

Federal Legislation Regarding Driverless Cars
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states have already passed legislation permitting autonomous vehicles, while 33 total have introduced it. The only federal guidelines regarding the use of driverless cars were released in September of this year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The guidelines read like an advertisement for driverless cars, citing a study that shows 94% of all traffic accidents are attributed to human error. While the NHTSA says that driverless cars are a thing of the future and many years away, the carmakers themselves have bragged that the cars are “quarters” away from being on the road.

The SELF DRIVE Act (H.R. 3388), the first piece of federal legislation relating to driverless cars, passed the House in September of this year. It was sent on to the Senate for a vote but has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.  The SELF DRIVE Act aims to officially define the role and authority of the NHTSA over autonomous vehicles, as well as their responsibility in the design of these vehicles to ensure their safety.

While we wait for a vote on the SELF DRIVE Act and answers to how computer error can be avoided, driverless cars are already being tested on the road in certain states, proving that automakers are planning on being able to soon release these cars to the market. The question remains whether or not driverless cars are any safer than the average American driver would be. Even with human error as a factor in most accidents, would we really fare better by entrusting our lives and the lives of others to computers? And in the awful event that a computer error causes an accident, who is at fault? So many questions remain and so few answers exist.