Self-driving Cars: Are They Safe?

November 6th, 2017 by Wapner Newman

Self-Driving Car

In September, the National Transportation Safety Board released findings from its investigation of a fatal Florida crash that occurred in May 2016. The driver who died had engaged the Autopilot feature in his Tesla Model S before crashing into a tractor-trailer.

The Tesla Model S isn’t fully autonomous, but its Autopilot feature can brake, steer, and make evasive maneuvers to avoid a crash. When it senses a threat on the roadway (such as stopped traffic ahead), it alerts the driver to retake control. The technology is intended only for highways that have exit ramps, not high-speed roads that have stoplights or multiple crossings.

The NTSB found that in the 37 minutes preceding the Florida crash, the driver had his hands on the wheel for only 25 seconds, despite the car’s issuing multiple “hands required” warnings. The driver made no effort to brake or steer before the crash, suggesting he was not looking at the road ahead of him, and the road wasn’t a true highway – it had multiple access points and crossings.

The NTSB recommended that Tesla develop ways to prohibit the use of Autopilot except on highways. Last year, Tesla did make changes that limit how long Autopilot can be engaged. It said in a statement that it would evaluate the NTSB’s recommendations.

The Pros and Cons of Self-driving Cars

According to Goldman Sachs Investment Research, fully autonomous vehicles and advanced driver assistance systems (like Tesla’s Autopilot) will greatly reduce crashes, because 90 percent of crashes involve human error. The firm projects that, over time, the cost benefit of these safety gains will be $249 billion in the United States.

Shelly Palmer, CEO of The Palmer Group, wrote an article for AdAge in which he espoused the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles. He said they would significantly reduce fatalities and injuries, as they remove from driving human errors and behaviors (like distraction, drowsy driving, and intoxication). Although there will likely be some risk that self-driving technologies could malfunction or be subject to remote hacking, Palmer says the cars will still be safer than those piloted by humans.

Despite the possible safety benefits of self-driving cars, they won’t have much of an impact if no one is willing to buy them. A big sticking point for consumers is the fact that truly autonomous cars would have to make life-or-death decisions. So, for example, an autonomous car may have to determine which is best: preserve the life of its passenger, but run over two pedestrians, or crash into a wall in order to spare the lives of the pedestrians.

Research has found that consumers see the value in a car’s choosing what’s best for “the greater good,” yet they would prefer to ride in a car that will protect their own life above all others.

Automakers will need to find a way to assure consumers that self-driving technology is safe. And the Tesla accident in Florida definitely highlighted the importance of thoroughly testing technology to determine whether it will work as intended. For now, the widespread adoption of truly autonomous cars seems a long way off.

If you have any questions about this topic or believe that you suffered an injury because of a technological issue with your vehicle, the attorneys at Wapner Newman can help. For almost 40 years, we have been the trusted advocates for countless personal injury victims and their families throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We offer risk-free consultations and work on a contingency basis, which means that we do not require you to pay any fees until we have secured a recovery on your behalf. We encourage you to contact us today by calling 1-800-LAW-6600 or filling out a free case evaluation form.