Thursday, 11 June 2020 19:59

Self-Driving Vehicles Could Struggle to Eliminate Most Crashes

Will autonomous vehicles be better than humans at predicting, planning and execution? Will autonomous vehicles be better than humans at predicting, planning and execution?


The researchers also determined some crashes were unavoidable, such as those caused by a vehicle failure like a blowout or broken axle.


For the study, the researchers imagined a future in which all the vehicles on the road are self-driving. They assumed these future vehicles would prevent those crashes caused exclusively by perception errors or involved an incapacitated driver. That’s because cameras and sensors of fully autonomous vehicles could be expected to monitor the roadway and identify potential hazards better than a human driver and be incapable of distraction or incapacitation.


Crashes due to only sensing and perceiving errors accounted for 24% of the total, and incapacitation accounted for 10%. Those crashes might be avoided if all vehicles on the road were self-driving---though it would require sensors that worked perfectly and systems that never malfunctioned.


The remaining two-thirds might still occur unless autonomous vehicles are also specifically programmed to avoid other types of predicting, decision-making and performance errors.


Consider the crash of an Uber test vehicle that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, AZ, in March 2018. Its automated driving system initially struggled to correctly identify 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg on the side of the road. But once it did, it still was not able to predict she would cross in front of the vehicle, and it failed to execute the correct evasive maneuver to avoid striking her when she did so.


Planning and deciding errors, such as speeding and illegal maneuvers, were contributing factors in about 40% of crashes in the study sample. The fact deliberate decisions made by drivers can lead to crashes indicates that rider preferences might sometimes conflict with the safety priorities of autonomous vehicles.


For self-driving vehicles to live up to their promise of eliminating most crashes, they will have to be designed to focus on safety rather than rider preference when those two are at odds.


Self-driving vehicles will need not only to obey traffic laws, but also adapt to road conditions and implement driving strategies that account for uncertainty about what other road users will do, such as driving more slowly than a human driver would in areas with high pedestrian traffic or in low-visibility conditions.


“Our analysis shows that it will be crucial for designers to prioritize safety over rider preferences if autonomous vehicles are to live up to their promise to be safer than human drivers,” Mueller says.


We thank IIHS for reprint permission. 

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