Would you trust your life to a computer?

Of course, in many ways, you already do. From computerized navigation on every modern airplane to automatic fire detection systems installed in most workplaces, computers already play a huge role in the daily lives of Americans – though often out of sight, and thus out of mind.

In a world where robots build cars, one could argue that we already entrust our lives to the quality of their work every time we drive – but the sense of agency that a driver feels is different when being driven in an autonomous vehicle.

First, the Facts on Driverless Car Accident Scenes and Frequency

According to Safer America, human error accounts for 94% of all car accidents in the United States. While driverless cars are still in their infancy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does have sufficient data about their use to draw some important parallels between driverless car safety and human-caused car accident scenes.

  • In 2014, American drivers caused 1 fatality for every 90 million miles driven.
  • Since 2009, driverless cars caused 1 fatality for every 130 million miles driven.
  • 2.3 million people were injured in human-driven car collisions in 2014.
  • 14 car accidents scenes involving autonomous vehicles have been reported since 2009.

While the sample sizes of these two datasets are significantly different – most experts agree that driverless vehicles have the potential to be safer than human-driven vehicles. There are a few reasons why this would be so.

  • 360-Degree Vision. Driverless cars use a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDaR) system that creates a high-resolution three-dimensional map of the area surrounding the vehicle – without blind spots.
  • Faster Response Time. Onboard computers piloting driverless vehicles regularly outperform humans in reaction time tests. They perform millions of calculations per second and accurately predict crashes well before human beings can.
  • Ultrasonic Sensors. Autonomous vehicles use ultrasonic sensor technology to determine the positions of lane markers, curbs, and other vehicles. This makes them better equipped to drive safely than human beings, who can misjudge distances through intuition.

Reported Driverless Car Accidents Since 2009

The first driverless cars entered public roads in a limited capacity in the year 2009. Since then, several high-profile car accident scenes have been reported, regularly making headlines due to public interest in the potentially revolutionary technology that driverless cars represent.

Because these crashes are highly reported and regular car crashes generally aren’t, it is easy for the public to believe that they are more common than they really are – but there only a handful of verified cases of driverless car crashes, listed below.

1. Google Runs a Red Light and Crashes

In September 2016, Google made headlines for its most dangerous crash yet. Overall, the tech giant has reported 11 separate incidents involving its experimental fleet of self-driving cars. In this case, the car entered an intersection while it had a green light and was hit by a van whose driver ran the red light while rushing to make a turn.

No one was hurt in the collision. Experts and witnesses agree that the van driver was at fault for the accident, which smashed the passenger side of the autonomous vehicle and the front of the van.

2. Uber Has a Rollover Collision with Another Vehicle

Uber’s most notable crash also involves an intersection. One of its experimental self-driving vehicles got caught in a rollover collision involving the driver of a Honda CR-V who crossed three lanes to make a turn and was surprised to see the Uber vehicle making a left turn against hers.

The driver notes that Uber’s car was obscured by the line of traffic in the southbound left lane, leaving her no time to react before the car entered the intersection. This crash underscores the importance of onboard computer pilots responding to human behavior – speeding up to make a yellow light, for instance.

3. NuTonomy Autonomous Glitches

India-based tech startup NuTonomy beat the major American tech companies to release the world’s first self-driving taxi service, but had to suspend activity following a crash with a large truck. No one was injured in the low-speed crash, but it was alarmingly reported to have been due to software anomalies – not human error.

4. Tesla Collides with a Semi-Truck

Tesla was implicated in history’s first autonomous vehicle fatality, involving the autopilot technology on its Model S vehicle. In this case, the car appeared to attempt to drive under a truck, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s investigation found that Tesla was not to blame for the driver’s death.

Investigators found that the circumstances of the crash were outside the performance capabilities of Tesla’s autopilot system, which only makes the vehicle partially autonomous – it does not have the same technology as Google’s or Uber’s true driverless cars, and Tesla specifically warns drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road at all times. In this case, the driver was reportedly watching a Harry Potter film at the time of the fatal collision.

The Future of Driverless Cars

While these grisly car accident scenes may dissuade some motorists from embracing a driverless future, the potential benefits autonomous cars offer will eventually outweigh the risks. This future raises questions of practical and philosophical significance – questions that every motorist should take into consideration.

For instance, what are the best ethical guidelines for self-driving cars concerning unavoidable accidents? Germany is working on a set of guidelines that put human lives first without prioritizing lives – meaning that a single passenger careening into a family of pedestrians may be forced to sacrifice himself to minimize loss of human life.

Another thorny issue concerns the legal basis for fault and liability. When two driverless cars crash, which party will be responsible – the auto owners or manufacturers? There is no precedent for this question. Government regulators and insurers are watching the industry closely for signs, and waiting for an answer that will determine the future of driverless cars while reducing car accident scenes like those listed above.

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