Driverless cars promise a safer ride, with fewer crashes – by removing human error from the equation. But it may be premature to expect complete safety, experts say.
In South Africa, more than 25 road deaths per 100 000 people were reported in 2016. A total of 14 071 people died on South African roads from January to December 2016, a 9% increase on the previous year.
Claims that self-driving cars could avoid 90% of road deaths are untested, however, a new report by the International Transport Forum (ITF) shows.
At this point it is unclear whether automated driving is safer, Philippe Crist, one of the principal authors of the report told journalists during the ITF summit on safety and security held in Leipzig, Germany. The summit is the world's largest gathering of transport ministers and policy makers.
"Part of the reason we don’t know is because we don’t have a whole lot of data on the safety performance of automated vehicles."
Just how much automation will improve road safety ultimately depends on how safely automated driving systems can carry out the parts of the driving task they are assigned, the report argues.
And although it seems likely that the number of road casualties will decrease with automation, crashes are unlikely to disappear.
"Just because you remove human error from the system, [that] doesn’t mean machine errors won’t occur. Tragically, we’ve already seen machine errors, or rather unintended consequences of automation on streets, take human lives and seriously injure [people],” Crist said.
The report also warns that vehicle automation strategies that keep humans involved in the driving task seem risky – like when the backup driver behind the wheel of the automated vehicle has to intervene.
"A shared responsibility for driving among both automated systems and humans may not render decision making simpler, but more complex. Thus, the risk of unintended consequences that would make driving less safe, not more, could increase."
That said, we shouldn’t think of driverless cars as a magical silver bullet, said chairperson of the Stop the Crash Partnership, David Ward.
Instead, he believes managing speed could be the key.
"For me, at least, the nearest thing there is to a silver bullet is managing speed. And this is a huge challenge. It’s a very sensitive issue and there is a lot of resistance to it.
"There is also a culture which is still prone today in the automotive industry, to promote speed."
*Sharlene Rood went to the ITF summit in Leipzig on Fin24's invitation.