RAND report says introducing ‘imperfect’ AVs could still save thousands of lives


According to a new report from the RAND Corporation, autonomous vehicles (AVs) should only have to be moderately better than human drivers before being widely used in the USA, an approach that could save thousands of lives annually, even before the technology is perfected.

The study from the public policy research organization says allowing widespread use of AVs when they are just 10% better than current US drivers could prevent thousands of road fatalities over the next 15 years, and possibly hundreds of thousands of fatalities over 30 years, compared to waiting until they are 75% or 90% better.

Given the many uncertainties about the future of AV performance and use, the calculations were made by estimating road fatalities over time under hundreds of different plausible futures and different safety requirements for AV introduction.

AV developers are testing the cars in many US cities, while federal law makers are considering a variety of new regulations and updates to existing regulations to govern their deployment and encourage their use. However, the study notes that what remains unknown is how good the vehicles have to be, before they are made available for use by all consumers.

The report, The Enemy of Good: Estimating the Cost of Waiting for Nearly Perfect Automated Vehicles, explains that the allure of driverless cars is based partly on convenience, and partly on the potential to eliminate the human errors that currently contribute to more than 90% of crashes, such as driving when drunk, tired or distracted.

Researchers acknowledge that even if AVs are proven safer than the average human driver, the vehicles would still cause crashes, as they remain vulnerable to other hazards, such as inclement weather, complex traffic situations, and even cyberattacks.

“Our work suggests that it is sensible to allow autonomous vehicles on America’s roads when they are judged to be just moderately safer than having a person behind the wheel,” said Nidhi Kalra, co-author of the study and director of RAND’s San Francisco office.

“If we wait until these vehicles are nearly perfect, our research suggests the cost will be many thousands of needless deaths caused by human mistakes. It’s the very definition of perfect being the enemy of good.”

Study co-author David Groves noted, “Society may be less tolerant of mistakes made by machines than mistakes made by people. If we can accept that early self-driving cars will make some mistakes, but fewer than humans, developers can use early deployment to more rapidly improve the technology, while saving lives.”

Click here to watch RAND’s video about why ‘imperfect’ AVs should be deployed now.

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About Author


Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).