RAND Study Urges Early Adoption of Self-Driving Cars to Save Lives

Just how important is self-driving technology to the future of highway traffic safety?

According to a new study from the nonprofit organization RAND, extremely important. Whereas most people may feel cautious about having self-driving cars on the road right now—before the technology has been perfected—RAND research suggests that we shouldn’t wait, because autonomous vehicles could save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Are Self-Driving Cars Safer?

We can’t help but be a little worried about these self-driving cars, especially when we hear about them crashing or causing human injury. In July 2015, CNN revealed that Google’s self-driving car experienced its first vehicle crash with injuries, though fortunately, the injuries were minor. In March 2017, Uber Technologies suspended its pilot program for self-driving cars when one of its vehicles crashed in Arizona.

In 2016, a Tesla car in computer-assisted mode was involved in a fatal crash. The driver collided with a semitrailer truck in Florida, making him the first known fatality driving an autonomous vehicle. In fact, according to a 2015 study, self-driving cars actually crash more than regular ones.

In a report released by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, for every million miles driven, self-driving vehicles had 9.1 crashes, compared to just 1.9 for regular vehicles, making them five times more likely to crash, and their occupants four times as likely to get injured.

The cars, however, were not to blame in these crashes, which were found to be the fault of human drivers in conventional cars. The injuries from the car crashes were also less serious than those in regular auto accidents. The researchers added that the technology was still too new to compare adequately to traditional vehicles.

Study Finds Early Introduction Would Be Best

For the RAND study, researchers developed a model to estimate the number of lives saved or lost over the coming decades under various different scenarios. In total, they examined 500 different scenarios and found that in most cases, getting self-driving cars on the road sooner rather than later “saved more lives in the near term,” and in all cases, saved more lives over the long term.

They gave examples of two scenarios:

  1. Introduce the cars when they’re only slightly safer: Under this scenario, it’s the year 2020, and people can buy self-driving cars that are about 10 percent safer than human-operated cars. Forty years later, self-driving cars account for about 80 percent of all miles traveled. By 2035, they’ve become 90 percent safer than human-operated vehicles. By 2070, they will have saved about 1.1 million lives.
  2. Wait to introduce until they’re a lot safer: Under this scenario, we wait until 2040 to roll out the self-driving cars on a large basis. In 30 years, they account for 80 percent of miles traveled. By 2070, they will have saved about 580,000 lives.

The researchers pointed to these results to show that early adoption of the autonomous vehicles would result in more lives saved.

NHTSA Urges Faster Adoption

The researchers hope their study will be helpful for regulators and policymakers who are dealing with the issue of when and how to allow these cars on the road.

According to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief regulator Mark Rosekind, “we can’t stand idly by while we wait for the perfect. We lost 35,200 lives on our roads last year…If we wait for perfect, we’ll be waiting for a very, very long time. How many lives might we be losing if we wait?”