How Safe Are Driverless Cars?

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A few years ago, the notion of driverless cars might have seemed stranger than fiction. Now, though, autonomous driving technology is being developed and tested at a rapid pace, and the reality of riding in a driverless car is closer than ever.

In the past couple of years, Canada has taken steps to establish itself as a leader in autonomous cars: there was the first driverless car test on a public road in October 2017, and, in that same month, the Ontario government announced an 80 million dollar investment in autonomous technology.

Considering that human error is a factor in almost 99 percent of car accidents, it’s no wonder that Canadian policy-makers want to make sure the country isn’t falling behind when it comes to this exciting new technology. In fact, one report from the Conference Board of Canada projects that autonomous vehicles could save the country up to 65 billion dollars as a result of fewer collisions, less congestion, and reduced fuel usage.

While those numbers sound great, a recent news story detailing the driverless car crash that killed a pedestrian might have some Canadians questioning the technology. To understand why this supposedly-safer car still caused a deadly collision, there are a few things people should understand about autonomous technology.

First, driverless cars require a human behind the wheel to take over when necessary, since even the smartest computer won’t have the same experience and skill as a human driver – especially when faced with unexpected variables. In the case of the car that crashed, the human driver was unfortunately not paying attention to the road in the moments before the accident, meaning they weren’t able to swerve or brake to avoid the pedestrian.

Second, driverless cars rely on cameras and sensors. While this software might be able to reliably see the road, experts point out that the technology can’t necessarily understand what it is seeing. In this case, investigators suspect that the car’s sensors detected the pedestrian, but didn’t recognize her as human – since she was pushing a bike and carrying many bags. Otherwise, they explain, the computer would have engaged the car’s brakes.

Finally, this technology is still being developed and perfected, and there are many areas where it comes up short. For example, poor weather conditions like snow and ice can obscure the sensors that the computer relies upon to make decisions. While this wasn’t a factor in the recent accident, it does help explain why it will still be a couple of decades before driverless cars become the norm.

The accident also highlights another problem that both policy-makers and insurers will have to manage: who is at fault when a driverless car crashes? As the technology develops, the car insurance industry will be watching closely to find solutions to this problem. In Ontario, the current regulations hold the human driver at fault in the event of a collision, regardless of whether the car was operating in manual or autonomous mode.

Despite this tragic accident, autonomous driving technology will continue to be developed, and Canadians will rely on policy-makers, technology developers, car manufacturers and insurers to prepare for the future of driverless cars.

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How Safe Are Driverless Cars?