Our current transportation system involving human-driven vehicles on roads is a mess. Every day we’re reminded of this in the form of heavy traffic jams, road rage incidents and accidents.

Self-driving cars will go a long way towards easing traffic congestion, eliminating road rage (robots don’t get angry at each other) and reducing accidents. So while they’re not perfect and will not completely remove our transportation woes, they will make things much better.

There are many advantages to self-driving cars, chief of which is that they’re safer than human-driven cars. Many studies have shown that nine out of 10 accident cases were caused by human error. Suffice to say, this would be removed from the equation if there were autonomously-driven cars.

Besides making road travel safer for everyone, self-driving cars can also improve productivity and wellbeing. People can actually do some reading or work on their computers while driving home because a robotic unit is doing the driving. Alternatively, they could get some rest or even sleep, which most of us don’t get enough of.

Derailing the theory

All of this sounds really good but two high-profile accidents last month involving self-driving cars have made people wonder if driverless cars are as safe as they’re made out to be. In March, a 49-year old lady was pushing her bicycle across a road in Tempe, Arizona when she was struck by a self-driven Uber vehicle.

The Volvo SUV had radar technology to see through the dark and computers in the back of the car to analyse streaming images in real-time. There was even a human operator in the driver’s seat to intervene in case of emergency.

Somehow, despite all these safeguards, the accident happened and the lady was killed. The local police said that the victim was jaywalking and that if she had used a crosswalk located just about 100 metres away, it would have been a lot safer because crosswalks are well-lit.

Also in March, a Tesla car on autopilot crashed into a highway barricade in California. Tesla said that the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision, despite the fact that he had received several visual and one audible warning earlier in the drive. Tesla also said in a blog post that its vehicles equipped with the autopilot feature are still safer than regular cars, being 3.7 times less likely to be involved in a fatal crash.

These two deaths involving self-driving cars are two deaths too many. But it is worth noting that in America, nearly 40,000 people die in road accidents each year, 90 per cent of which are due to human error, according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Into the future

Perhaps the surest sign that self-driving cars are the wave of the future is the announcement by Waymo, Google’s sister company, that it had recently purchased 20,000 electric self-driving Jaguar SUVs for its upcoming ride-hailing service. It had also ordered thousands of Chrysler minivans earlier in the year.

Waymo says it expects to handle millions of trips per day by 2020. That’s significant - not the number of trips part but the timeline. With its vast fleet of SUVs and minivans, it can achieve millions of trips per day especially since these self-driving cars don’t have drivers who need to rest. But to get this service launched by 2020 is remarkable because that’s less than two years away.

Google wouldn’t have announced this kind of timeline if it were not sure that its technology will work. This doesn’t mean that there won’t ever be any accidents involving Waymo cars. It also doesn’t mean that nobody will ever get killed in one. But there’s certainly an expectation that the frequency of such accidents happening will be far below the accident rate of human-driven cars.

The irony with new things is that if mishaps are rare, when they do happen they tend to generate a disproportionate amount of news coverage. Think of airplane disasters. Precisely because plane crashes are so rare, whenever they happen, it’s big news. In contrast, car accidents (involving human drivers) are common so when they happen, it’s hardly news.

Take the recent Uber and Tesla accidents. One involved the car hitting a lady crossing the street. The other involved the car crashing into a highway barrier. Would either of these have gathered the international headlines that they did if they were accidents that had involved human drivers?

So, driverless cars will invite a tonne of scrutiny. Any accident will become big, international news. Perhaps the key players such as the Waymos and Ubers of the world, as well as the automakers and the government all need to slow things down a bit and implement strategies and regulations that will minimise the chance of accidents happening so that the public doesn’t get scared of this new thing that’s going to revolutionise transportation.

Step by step

If we want car travel to be safer than it is now, it’s not enough to have some self-driving cars on the road. If there are human-driven cars in the mix, there’s bound to be more accidents. So perhaps there should be dedicated lanes just for self-driving cars. That would allow the public to objectively gauge how much safer self-driving cars are compared to regular people-driven cars.

Although it might not be practical to do this, it may be worthwhile for certain new roads and highways being built to be designated for driverless cars only. Again, this would allow people to have a better sense of how much better it is to have driverless cars.

At the end of the day, what these driverless cars need, certainly initially, are very predictable situations. When you have human-driven cars in the mix, you introduce unpredictability. This makes it that much harder for driverless cars to maintain their safety record.

Of course it’s tantalising to think that in just two years, the world will see driverless cars populating the roads, firstly in the US and eventually the world. But it might not be a bad idea to take things slowly and cautiously first just to ensure that there aren’t sensational headlines that would strike fear into the hearts of commuters about a technology that will change the world in very significant ways.

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