(CN) – Legalizing autonomous vehicles that drive only moderately better than humans could save thousands of lives each year, according to a new report by the RAND Corporation.
When driverless cars will become a reality on the road remains unclear. As developers continue to test their vehicles in cities like San Francisco and Pittsburgh, federal lawmakers are reviewing an assortment of new regulations and updates to existing rules to govern the commercial launch of autonomous vehicles and inspire consumer confidence.
In a study that could influence such efforts, RAND researchers have found that introducing these vehicles when they are just 10 percent better than American drivers – as opposed to 75 or 90 percent better – could prevent thousands of road deaths over the next 15 years, and potentially hundreds of thousands over 30 years.
Given the range of uncertainties that surround autonomous vehicle performance and use, the team’s analysis involved estimating future road fatalities under hundreds of plausible scenarios and different safety requirements.
“Our work suggests that it is sensible to allow autonomous vehicles on America’s roads when they are judged to be just moderately safer than having a person behind the wheel,” said co-author Nidhi Kalra, director of RAND’s San Francisco office. “If we wait until these vehicles are nearly perfect, our research suggests the cost will be many thousands of needless vehicle crash deaths caused by human mistakes.
“It’s the very definition of perfect being the enemy of good.”
The appeal of driverless cars stems both convenience and the potential for avoiding human errors like driving while drunk, distracted or tired. These driver-related errors account for more than 90 percent of all crashes in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Even if autonomous vehicles are safer than the average human driver, the cars would still cause accidents. The vehicles also remain vulnerable to other hazards, including complex traffic situations, inclement weather and cyberattacks, according to the RAND team.
“This may not be acceptable because society may be less tolerant of mistakes made by machines than of mistakes made by people,” said co-author David Groves, co-director of RAND’s Water and Climate Resilience Center.
“But if we can accept that early self-driving cars will make some mistakes – but fewer than human drivers – developers can use early deployment to more rapidly improve self-driving technology, even as their vehicles save lives.”
Kalra hopes the findings will help policymakers and the public make informed evaluations of the potential risks and benefits of driverless cars. How to measure the safety of the vehicles, and what should serve as a passing grade, are among the questions policymakers and manufacturers must consider, according to the team.
The study builds on past research that determined road testing under real traffic conditions is impractical for demonstrating autonomous vehicle safety, as it would require decades or longer to drive the requisite miles.
Crashes in the United States led to more than 35,000 deaths and 2.4 million injuries in 2015, according to the National Safety Council, which projected 40,200 such fatalities in 2016.