IIHS Denounces Concept of Total Safety From Autonomous Cars

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
iihs denounces concept of total safety from autonomous cars

When the United States began passing legislation allowing automakers to begin testing self-driving vehicles on public roads, it was framed almost entirely as a safety issue. Proponents claimed that the only way to eliminate roadway fatalities was to take the human brain out of the equation and let cars drive themselves. Having enacted a similar no-thinking policy themselves, legislators agreed — pleased to have ensured a death-free future on little more than empty corporate promises.

At the time, we were still complaining about the unreliable nature of advanced driving aids, and how such systems seem custom-made to dull your reflexes behind the wheel. There was a sense that, if everything went perfectly, maybe autonomous vehicles (AVs) could reduce accidents by previously unheard of levels. That feeling didn’t last particularly long here at TTAC and, by 2018, we started noticing we weren’t alone.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) grew increasingly critical of AVs starting a couple of years ago. On Thursday, it released a report claiming the idea of a no-crash future spurred by automation is a fantasy. Instead, the IIHS says cutting-edge technology will likely struggle to stop just a third of all accidents.

From IIHS:

Conventional thinking has it that self-driving vehicles could one day make crashes a thing of the past. The reality is not that simple. According to a national survey of police-reported crashes, driver error is the final failure in the chain of events leading to more than 9 out of 10 crashes.

But the Institute’s analysis suggests that only about a third of those crashes were the result of mistakes that automated vehicles would be expected to avoid simply because they have more accurate perception than human drivers and aren’t vulnerable to incapacitation. To avoid the other two-thirds, they would need to be specifically programmed to prioritize safety over speed and convenience.

As stupid as it is to say AVs “aren’t vulnerable to incapacitation,” when we already know advanced driving aids relying on similar hardware fail anytime a camera gets dirty or a sensor gets bumped out of position, IIHS is on the right track.

Driving is an extremely involved task; the mind makes calculations on the fly, helping you process information and enact a usable plan in milliseconds. Programming a computer to remember one thing is easy, and it will accomplish that task with such effectiveness and repeatability as to embarrass us, but they come up short when you chuck in trillions of variables, which driving does. Here, the mushy and easily distracted human brain still reigns supreme.

“Building self-driving cars that drive as well as people do is a big challenge in itself,” said IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller, lead author of the study. “But they’d actually need to be better than that to deliver on the promises we’ve all heard.”

The automotive industry may have dug its own grave on this issue. In order to speed up development, automakers needed to test vehicles in real-world scenarios. To get there, however, they first had to promise the moon in regards to safety… and regulators were willing to believe.

IIHS refuted the bold safety claims with a study (more of a thought experiment, really). Researchers imagined a future in which all vehicles on the road are self-driving and totally effective at avoiding accidents created by an inattentive or incapacitated diver. Those types of accidents account for about 34 percent of the serious accidents we see every year. The rest stem from a driver either planning incorrectly (e.g. mistakenly thinking they can make a last minute exit) or executing poorly (e.g. failing to safely make an exit when they could have) and can only be stopped if total control is stripped from the driver and the car never once breaks the rules of the road.

Many experts note that simply allowing non-autonomous vehicles to share the road with self-driving cars would be a huge problem in itself. Even if AVs are perfectly networked together, operating as one gigantic system, human drivers would serve as difficult-to-predict anomalies on the road. Meanwhile, the IIHS’ own assessment of the present-day safety systems that are supposed to foreshadow true self driving shows them to be saddled with problems.

“Our analysis shows that it will be crucial for designers to prioritize safety over rider preferences if autonomous vehicles are to live up to their promise to be safer than human drivers,” Mueller said.

And there’s the big problem — and the reason why automakers probably won’t pursue this much further. The industry wants to sell vehicular autonomy as a feature, not as standard equipment baked into every unit. We also don’t think it was ever all that interested in promoting safety. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see distracting screens creeping into every corner of a car’s cabin and advanced driving aids with glaring shortcomings.

[Image: IIHS]

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2 of 28 comments
  • SCE to AUX Probably couldn't afford it - happens all the time.
  • MaintenanceCosts An ugly-a$s Challenger with poor equipment choices and an ugly Dealership Default color combination, not even a manual to redeem it, still no sale.
  • Cha65689852 To drive a car, you need human intelligence, not artificial intelligence.Unfortunately, these days even human brains are turning into mush thanks to addiction to smartphones and social media.
  • Mike1041 A nasty uncomfortable little car. Test drove in 2019 in a search for a single car that would appease two drivers. The compromise was not much better but at least it had decent rear vision and cargo capacity. The 2019 Honda HRV simply was too unforgiving and we ditched after 4 years. Enter the 23 HRV and we have a comfy size.
  • SCE to AUX I wonder who really cares about this. "Slave labor" is a useful term for the agendas of both right and left."UAW Wants Auto Industry to Stop Using Slave Labor"... but what will the UAW actually do if nothing changes?With unrelenting downward pressure on costs in every industry - coupled with labor shortages - expect to see more of this.Perhaps it's my fault when I choose the $259 cell phone over the $299 model, or the cheaper parts at RockAuto, or the lower-priced jacket at the store.Do I care about an ethical supply chain? Not really, I just want the product to work - and that's how most consumers are. We'd rather not know.Perhaps the 1990s notion of conflict-free, blood-free, ethically-sourced diamonds will find its way into the auto industry. That would be a good thing.