What if driverless cars are never safer than a human?

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It seems like every day we take one step closer to fully automated cars and that in reality, within a couple of decades none of us will be driving our cars at all. Instead, we’ll just call them up when needed and they’ll pick us up where we are and drop us off where we’re going. It’ll end fatal car accidents, kill off the need for insurance and make the world a faster and more efficient place. But not everyone agrees and a new study thinks that in some situations at least, cars will never become more safe on their own than they are with us in charge.

Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute said in a new White Paper (via Telegraph) believes that while driverless cars might be able to offer us autonomy on the motorway, travelling in strange conditions, around coned off areas, or based on instructions from police officers could be nearly impossible, or in the best case scenario, no better than what a car equipped with a focused human driver could achieve.

The study does however admit that automated vehicles would help prevent a large number of the 1.2 million road deaths that take place around the world every year. The report also addresses the fact that those with disabilities and the elderly may benefit greatly from the autonomy that could be given to them with the use of driverless vehicles. They would be able to continue to control their own transport well into advanced age and therefore could stay independent, saving money on carers and helpers.

Certain automated cars drive very much like their human counterparts.

Certain automated cars drive very much like their human counterparts.

However, in certain scenarios the researchers don’t think it will matter whether automation or a human driver is involved. They draw one example where a drunk individual stumbles in front of a car. Whether the brakes are pressed by a cognizant human, or by an automated safety system, a car can only slow down so quickly so as to avoid injuring passengers. However, this situation negates the idea that the damage done to everyone involved may be reduced, due to the potentially faster reaction times of an automated car, no matter how short the distance.

The paper goes on to warn that automated vehicles may fail more often than we are used to our traditional cars and lorries doing, due to their increased complexity.

Perhaps the biggest issue with piloted cars though, according to the study, will be the transitionary period. While having all human drivers on the road proves problematic in a few scenarios and automated cars may be the same, having half and half may prove even more of an issue as the two forms of control don’t react in the same way to stimuli, thereby potentially causing more accidents.

Do you guys think there is much to these claims? There’s a lot of speculation there about what will be, but it’s always interesting to play devil’s advocate and see the other side of the argument.

[Thanks Telegraph]

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.