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RAND study finds introducing autonomous vehicles sooner could save hundreds of thousands of lives

Autonomous vehicles should only have to be moderately better than human drivers before being widely used in the United States, an approach that could save thousands of lives annually even before the technology is perfected, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

Allowing wide use of autonomous vehicles when they are just 10% better than current American drivers could prevent thousands of road fatalities over the next 15 years and possibly hundreds of thousands of fatalities over 30 years, researchers found, compared to waiting until they are 75% or 90% better.

In this report, we use the RAND Model of Automated Vehicle Safety to compare road fatalities over time under (1) a policy that allows HAVs to be deployed for consumer use when their safety performance is just 10 percent better than that of the average human driver and (2) a policy that waits to deploy HAVs only once their safety performance is 75 or 90 percent better than that of average human drivers—what some might consider nearly perfect.

We find that, in the long term, under none of the conditions we explored does waiting for significant safety gains result in fewer fatalities. At best, fatalities are comparable, but, at worst, waiting has high human costs—in some cases, more than half a million lives. Moreover, the conditions that might lead to comparable fatalities—rapid improvement in HAV safety performance that can occur without widespread deployment—seem implausible. This suggests that the opportunity cost, in terms of lives saved, for waiting for better HAV performance may indeed be large. This evidence can help decisionmakers better understand the human cost of different policy choices governing HAV safety and set policies that save more lives.

—Kalra and Groves (2017)

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

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

—Nidhi Kalra, co-author of the study and director of RAND’s San Francisco office

Developers of autonomous vehicles are testing the cars in cities such as San Francisco and Pittsburgh, while federal lawmakers are considering a variety of new regulations and updates to existing regulations to govern their deployment and encourage their use. But what remains unknown is how good the vehicles have to be before they are made available for use to all consumers.

The allure of driverless cars is based partly on convenience and partly on the potential to eliminate costly human errors, such as driving when drunk, tired or distracted. More than 90% of crashes involve such driver-related errors, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

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

This may not be acceptable because society may be less tolerant of mistakes made by machines than of mistakes made by people. But if we can accept that early self-driving cars will make some mistakes—but fewer than human drivers—developers can use early deployment to more rapidly improve self-driving technology, even as their vehicles save lives.

—David Groves, study co-author and co-director of RAND’s Water and Climate Resilience Center

Kalra hopes the study will enable policymakers and the public to better weigh potential risks and benefits of autonomous vehicles. Key considerations include how to measure the safety of the vehicles and what should constitute a passing grade.

The report builds upon past research that found road testing under real traffic conditions is impractical for proving autonomous vehicle safety prior to deployment because it would take decades or longer to drive the requisite miles.




I disagree with the 10% better scenario.
Think of the headlines - every time an AV kills someone there will be a name and a crash image and headlines. Every time a crash does not happen, there is no notification.
If you study the road death statistics, you will see a result, but this is far to subtle for most people.
However, there is merit in not waiting for them to be 90% better as too many people will die in the meantime.
So the question is - at what level do you allow them "out", or how do you introduce them - state by state, city by city?

The advantage of getting a large number of cars out is that you will see the real system failures (which you may not anticipate) quicker, and get them fixed quicker.

If you wait till you get to 90%, you will have waited too long, 10% and you'll have too many AV deaths.
maybe there is a number between 10% and 90% that would be a good deployment trigger number.


More and more road fatalities and costly accidents are due to careless/distracted drivers using i-phones or tablets.

Since that type of accidents (and others) are going up fast, the time has arrived to introduce ADVs, as soon as they are as save as average distracted human drivers, not really better by 10% or 90%.


mahonj is probably correct. Even this article focuses on fatalities. The real payoff is in reduced injuries (including traumatic brain), lower hospital costs, dramatically reduced auto repair costs, etc. But the benefits don't have to wait for fully autonomous cars. Full implementation of currently available safety features across all vehicles can move us in this direction with less publicity around fatal errors.

Brent Jatko

I agree with mahonj's analysis and I also propose a trigger number of ~55%.


I don't think there are too many issues with the active telematics other than the vehicle not finding the road some times. Which, is admittedly pretty disastrous.

I think the plan for Ford and others is around 2020-2025 to launch Uber type fleets in well mapped cities. Thus limiting the possibilities for anomalies. I say the sooner the better in this respect. IIRC they want to push out level 4s, completely devoid of human controls.

As for the general population, I say different levels should be on the road now. Tesla's autopilot is a good jumping off point.

Others like auto braking should be in every car now. Yes it can still cause errors/crashes, but having that extra 2-3 seconds to decelerate could save almost 90% of the fatalities.

I really don't see a need to hinder anything I have seen yet from OEMs as far as their planned rollouts are concerned. anything but level 4 requires driver attention, so, likely any accident will fault the driver. So its driving as normal with aids. Until level 4 roles out in the near future.

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