Improving Safety for Autonomous Cars

Tech companies are banding together to improve the safety of autonomous vehicles. The Autonomous Vehicle Coalition was announced this week and includes companies like Cisco, Esri and Econolite. The group will work with national government, industry and academic partners to responsibly integrate autonomous vehicles with roads and communities.

Last month’s fatal Uber crash became the first autonomous vehicle accident to kill a pedestrian. Also in the headlines was the Tesla crash that resulted in the death of the driver after hitting a highway barrier. Despite these incidents, which were heavily covered by the media, the proportion of crashes caused by driverless vehicles will likely be lower than those by human drivers once the technology is widely adopted. Most accidents are results of human error. Around 5.7 million car crashes occur in the US every year, with approximately 37,000 drivers and passengers and 6,000 pedestrians killed.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is conducting tests to find out how drivers use autonomous cars, for instance, whether they keep their hands over the wheel and whether they pay attention to the car’s audio and visual warnings. Professor of Philosophy, Nicholas Evans from the University of Massachusetts, will be studying risk-reward scenarios for driverless vehicles such as cars that decrease the number of deaths for drivers, but may increase the risk to pedestrians.

While car crashes will still happen of course, formulas such as the Safe Distance formula will improve safety by ensuring that cars do not follow too closely behind the car in front, which is a common cause of crashes by human drivers. In fact, in a US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, Autopilot was found to reduce accidents by 40 percent.

Research and development towards improving driverless vehicles and infrastructure will help to save lives. Other benefits of this technology could include an increase in ride-sharing services, which will in turn reduce traffic, the need for as many car park spaces and pollution. Furthermore, many autonomous cars will likely run on renewable energy or electricity rather than gas. Companies working on developing driverless cars are eligible for the R&D tax credit. Read more about the credit here.

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