The old adage is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t true. That might apply to self-driving vehicles, which have long been promoted as an advance in technology that will eliminate motor vehicle crashes.

Elimination of a third

According to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) that claim is too good to be true. In fact, the IIHS says driverless vehicles will only reduce traffic crashes by a third. The percentage could be higher, the insurance industry group says, if safety is prioritized in programming over convenience and speed – something that companies developing driverless tech say they are already doing.

Crash causes

The IIHS analyzed 5,000 crashes in which emergency medical services were called. The group divided the factors that caused the wrecks into five categories:

  • Sense and perception: driver errors that include distractions and failures to recognize hazard in time
  • Prediction: when drivers misjudge speed and distance of other vehicles or fail to accurately predict what other drivers will do
  • Planning and deciding: errors that include driving too fast and driving too slow for conditions and aggressive driving (including tailgating)
  • Execution and performance: inadequate or incorrect maneuvers to avoid collisions, overcompensation and other mistakes in vehicle-control
  • Incapacitation: driving drunk or while impaired by illegal or prescription drugs, as well as incapacitation brought on by medical conditions

Two types of crashes

The IIHS found two types of crash causes could be eliminated by driverless vehicles: errors in sense and perception (account for 24 percent of all auto wrecks) and incapacitation (accounting for another 10 percent). That means that about one third of all collisions could be eradicated by autonomous cars.

The insurance industry group also determined that just two percent of crashes are unavoidable and noted that the causes in about four percent of car accidents could not be determined.

The study also found that about 40 percent of the studied wrecks involved driver mistakes involving speeding and improper maneuvers (both of which are in the “planning and deciding” error category).

Critical design element

The IIHS said their research shows that crucial for designers of self-driving vehicles to prioritize safety over the preferences of the driving public for speed and convenience.

The Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE) – a consortium of companies developing driverless tech – says the study underestimates the capabilities being built into autonomous vehicles. But even if those vehicles only eliminate a third of all crashes, as the study suggests, that would be a significant achievement.

No matter what the future of transportation holds, we know that the present in Roanoke and across the nation far too often involves accident victims having to pursue fair compensation for damages in negotiations with insurance companies and in litigation.