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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Will Self-Driving Cars Ever Be Safe Enough?

Waymo vehicle

Autonomous vehicle trial runs are growing in real numbers in California, and so are the crashes coming from the self-driving cars.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has increased the number of companies given testing permits up to 65 this year, with 18 being added since 2017. These companies are now testing 658 AVs with more permits issued this year, nearly doubling the test fleet from 326 vehicles in 2017. Vehicle collisions have more than doubled — up to 67 so far this year, up from 29 last year.

The biggest challenge for companies testing AVs in California and other parts of the world has been having their test cars rear-ended. Since the beginning of 2016, 111 AV crashes have taken place in California with 71 being in fully autonomous modes during the collisions. Of the 71 incidents, 51 of them involved the test vehicle being struck from behind.

General Motors’ Cruise division has seen the most crashes over the past three years in the state — 41 in autonomous mode, with 27 of them reported as rear-end crashes. During that time, Alphabet’s Waymo subsidiary has been in 26 crashes in California, with 21 of them struck from behind.

California has been the global showcase for autonomous vehicle test launches starting with Google’s self-driving car nearly a decade ago, before parent company Alphabet launched the Waymo autonomous vehicle subsidiary. In October, Waymo announced it had hit the 10 million-mile milestone with much of it being done in California in the Silicon Valley area, and in Arizona, the next state over.

Arizona and other states don’t seem to be tracking the numbers on self-driving car miles driven, fleet vehicles, and crashes; or at least making them public like California. Waymo has built up a fleet of 400 test vehicles in Arizona, but California still gets more of the attention. And overseas companies like Bosch, Baidu, Didi, and Changan, have received permits for testing in California. The more the AV test fleets grow, the greater the likelihood of crashes increases.

"We have more permit holders testing more vehicles than we have had in years past, so the likelihood of an incident is naturally going to be higher," said Marty Greenstein, a spokesman for the California DMV. Related: 2019: A Pivotal Year For OPEC

Tesla and Uber had been seeing most of the pressure following fatal collisions involving their self-driving car systems. Waymo is feeling some of the pressure as well, after recently becoming the first company to be allowed by California to test cars without drivers on public roads. The company had been allowed by Arizona to operate without backup drivers over the past year.

Waymo and motor vehicle regulators around the world emphasize safety as the most critical issue to be resolved before the vehicles go mass market and receive support from the general public.

Safety regulators in the U.S. have become more concerned about traffic fatalities increasing with much of it associated with distracted driving, as the drivers become fixated on their smartphones while behind the wheel. In 2017, there were 40,100 people killed in vehicle accidents in the U.S., according to an estimate by the National Safety Council, up about 6% from 2015. While automakers have added numerous connected car and semi-autonomous vehicle features in recent years (with more airbags and collision avoidance systems being the most common), distracted driving has been blamed for most of it.

Waymo One was launched on December 5 by the company, becoming the first business unit generating revenue by offering the public rides in autonomous cars. As for now, it’s taking place in the Phoenix, Ariz., area. GM, Ford, Tesla, Nissan, Apple, Amazon, and several other global companies expect to see autonomous mobility services become the norm in crowded, growing cities around the world over the next decade; and a fast-fast-growing revenue stream for their companies.

The fleets are expected to be dominated by electric vehicles, as governments become more stringent over air quality and emissions. GM and Cruise have been using the electric Chevrolet Bolt in test runs, with GM’s Maven car-sharing service expected be a channel for renting out automated Bolts in the near future. Related: OPEC+ Succeeds, What’s Next For Oil?

Legal analysts predict that AV collisions are likely to come from defects in programming, with software developers taking the blame. Their employers will take the brunt of it, many of them being major automakers and Silicon Valley tech giants. It’s also likely that a new regulatory structure would take over, with federal governments taking the lead and corresponding changes being made to state tort laws where AVs are allowed to operate.

U.S. Senate Democrats are worried that a compromise bill wending its way through the lame-duck session in Washington could take away some of the safeguards protecting drivers on roadways.

“Many provisions still do not go far enough to protect American consumers,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said of the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act, or AV START.


“We can do better,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

Some automakers are making the case for lightening up the federal regulations governing AVs, with the idea being that less regulation will speed up the advent of self-driving cars. They say that rolling out thousands of AVs will reduce the traffic fatality rate, while others argue that safety standards must be strengthened to protect the public and gain their support in purchasing and operating their AVs. As with electric vehicles, the biggest challenge will be getting the public to trust the technology and spend their money on it.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Ginger on December 13 2018 said:
    Auto insurance and liability must change. Who is liable for an accident when the automobile owner was not driving his autonomous vehicle? Who must purchase insurance: the owner or the programmer/seller?

    What is the accident rate of autonomous versus experienced commercial drivers? Can I trust the programmer to spare my life when the option is to kill an errant pedestrian etc? All electronic systems fail. Witness moon and mars vehicles. They are not self repairing like humans. What is the cost to replace the autonomous electronics and software?

    The market is moving toward autonomous Uber or the like. Most travelers are not competent to maintain a vehicle and drive as safely for the same cost of Uber. As soon as the transportation companies achieve an oligopoly position they will raise the cost of a ride beyond the cost of personally owned and driven vehicles.
  • Daniel G on December 13 2018 said:
    Will autonomous vehicles be able to tell your tire wear? When it rains or snows? In the dark? The final 10% of setting these traps up will be the 90% problem. Recognizing weather conditions, highway conditions, dark cars at night, white cars in the snow...the list goes on.
    IMHO these things will take years to overcome...if ever... and how many will be maimed or killed in the process. Granted...distracted driving is doing that now so should we throw another driving program into the mess and hope it works? Naaa, not in my lifetime.
    Don't even get me started on self driving semi trucks?!!!

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