Will driverless cars really make the roads safer?

driverless car

We’ve probably all seen the negative stories surrounding driverless cars online – the most serious of which saw a woman in Arizona dying after being hit by an autonomous Uber.

The travails of this technology are clearly newsworthy – it’s a new and exciting innovation that people want to hail and ridicule in equal measure. Big companies are in the race to be the market leader and that also fuels the narrative – this is the space race of the day and that’s another ‘story’ to follow.

But does this all skew our view of driverless cars? Anecdotal, one-off stories might be newsworthy but are they the best way to judge the efficacy of emerging technology?

A lot of the scepticism of the technology stems from fear of the unknown. If there’s no-one at the wheel, then who’s in control? What if the technology goes wrong?

If man can’t make a domestic printer that behaves itself or a phone battery that’ll last for more than a year or two then how can we make a car that won’t lose control?! As a result of all of this, a substantial number of people are uncomfortable with the idea of handing over control of their vehicle to a ‘computer’.

But that perhaps ignores the unspoken truth – that the vast majority of accidents are caused by human error. Indeed, official government figures suggest that 70% of the casualties reported from UK road accidents were actually caused by ‘driver error’.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents believes that the majority of human error can eventually be eliminated with driverless cars – and that could drastically cut the number of people suffering serious incidents while out on the roads.

As this driverless car guide notes, a recent report from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has suggested that almost 4,000 road deaths can be prevented by 2030 with driverless car technology – and about 47,000 serious collisions would not occur over the course of the decade.

The SMMT also points out that more than £2 billion could be saved by eliminating such accidents – proving that there’s a cold hard financial case to back up the safety concerns too.

Even if SMMT’s numbers are an over-optimistic estimation, any innovation that reduces the ‘human error’ factor would clearly make the roads safer – provided it didn’t create an equal danger to replace this. Driverless cars could create new hazards for the roads – not least in terms of hacking and cyber security and the potential for this to leave a third party in control of the vehicle.

The next stage of development for driverless cars is crucial in terms of settling the safety question. Manufacturers need to reduce the frequency of the teething trouble headlines to help change public opinion and build in safeguards to protect against the potential weaknesses of new safety risks that don’t yet exist.

Driverless cars certainly could make the roads safer, whether they will or not is still up for debate.