A few years ago, a journalist wrote in The Atlantic, “If driverless cars deliver on their promise to eliminate the vast majority of fatal traffic accidents, the technology will rank among the most transformative public-health initiatives in human history.”
The writer went on to estimate that self-driving cars could be saving millions of lives around the world in a few decades. This type of radical change has already happened before: from 1970 to 2012, the number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. was reduced by nearly 50 percent.
According to 2015 estimates, self-driving technology could bring about a reduction of around 90 percent as soon as 2050. This translates to sparing thousands of American lives. Over the course of 50 years, 1.5 million lives could be saved.
According to researchers Michele Bertoncello and Dominik Wee, “By midcentury, the penetration of [self-driving cars] and other [similar technologies] could ultimately cause vehicle crashes in the United States to fall from second to ninth place in terms of their lethality ranking among accident types.” For the scholars, the reduction in the number of fatalities will lead to a $190 billion cut in healthcare costs associated with the accidents.
More recently, Jalopnik, a car news site, referred to 2018 as “a hard reality check for autonomous cars.” It is hard to disagree. With multiple fatalities, reckless testing on public streets, and the exposure of widespread corporate negligence, last year presented many setbacks for the companies on the mad race to become the world leader in the self-driving car space.
But, undoubtedly, the technology will continue to evolve, and when it is finally safe enough and adequately tested, it will ultimately save all those millions of lives. Yet that idyllic moment is still a long ways away.
So far, none of the companies on the cutting edge of the technology have been able to fully substitute human drivers with their software. There are still countless things autonomous cars cannot understand while humans can, and easily. These include simple things like flying birds and tree shadows.
In this scenario, companies like Uber have routinely dismissed test data and put cars out on the street when they knew accidents were bound to happen, sensors were not fine-tuned enough, unexpected software crashes might occur, etc.
A few years ago, computer scientist Andrew Moore said, “No one is going to want to realize autonomous driving into the world until there’s proof that it’s much safer, like a factor of 100 safer, than having a human drive.” Whenever that happens, millions of lives could potentially be saved. Until then, if developers keep putting these cars out on our streets before they are ready, lives will likely continue to be endangered.
Nobody expects autonomous cars to reduce the number of fatalities to zero, but before they are approved for widespread use, tech companies will certainly have to prove that their vehicles are significantly safer than human-operated cars.