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Will self-driving cars lead to less accidents?

If you listen to Elon Musk talk about the safety benefits of self-driving cars, you're probably already anticipating the revolution that autonomous vehicles are bringing to our roadways. The Tesla CEO recently claimed that self-driving cars cut the risks of vehicle accidents in half.

While Musk definitely has a dog in the fight, and provided little in the way of statistical background for his claim, his statements have fueled conversation about the potential safety benefits of these cars. Like it or not, autonomous vehicles look to be the future of our roadways. This is true for ride-sharing services, the trucking industry and even consumer-level automobiles.

Should we be scared of a future in which we have less control over our cars, or should we embrace the autonomous world unfolding before our eyes?

Smarter Vehicles Are Already on Our Roads

The fact is that our vehicles are increasingly equipped with automated technology. Automated braking, for example, is being used on a number of newer vehicles. These types of systems, often referred to as collision mitigation systems, are designed to detect dangers and intervene on behalf of the driver to avoid collisions with other vehicles. A study of automated emergency braking in Europe found that these systems reduce the number of rear-end crashes by 38 percent.

Other studies have shown that automated braking can cut the number of insurance injury claims by over one-third. These numbers have prompted manufacturers to include collision mitigation systems on their vehicles, and look to other ways of making their vehicles safer through autonomous technologies.

Human Error Accounts for Most Vehicle Accidents

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that human error is responsible for 94 percent of automobile crashes. We know all too well that drivers are responsible for distracted driving, drunk driving, reckless driving and drowsy driving accidents. But computers don't get distracted, drunk, tired or particularly reckless. So, it makes sense that many safety advocates, along with an increasing number of consumers, are optimistic about the potential benefits of self-driving cars.

Google's Self-Driving Car Partially at Fault in Recent Accident

Skeptics of self-driving cars were quick to pounce on an accident involving an automated Lexus operating with Google software and a municipal bus in February. While no one was injured, Google eventually conceded that it bore some responsibility for the crash, in which the automated vehicle miscalculated the actions of the bus involved, leading to a traffic collision. Google has claimed that they refined their software to avoid similar incidents in the future.

Since 2009, Google self-driving cars have driven over 1.3 million miles. They have been involved in just 17 crashes, with the crash mentioned above being the only instance in which human error was not strictly to blame.

But Is It Too Early To Tell?

According to recent RAND study, it might be impossible for us to know just how safe self-driving cars are until they have travelled hundreds of millions of miles, if not more. Researchers say that it's not practical to make a definitive statement over the safety of these vehicles until we have enough data. Since Americans drive so many miles, and self-driving cars have driven so few by comparison, it is difficult to compare the data.

So, the truth is that we simply don't know just how safe automated vehicles will make our roads. But we do know that these vehicles will be increasing in number, and that even human-piloted vehicles will be increasingly equipped with automated features. We hope that someday, our roads will be mostly free of accidents caused by driver error, but those days are still pretty far down the road.

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