IIHS Denounces Concept of Total Safety From Autonomous Cars

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Grg I am not sure that this would hold up in snow country. It used to be that people in snow country would not be caught dead in a white car. Now that white cars have become popular in the north, I can't tell you how many times I have seen white cars driving in the snow without lights. Almost all cars are less visible in a snow storm, or for that matter, rain storm, without lights. White ones become nearly invisible.
  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...