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Autonomous vehicles: Coming to a dealership near you

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By Brenda Wells

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Autonomous Vehicles: Coming to a Dealership Near You

Ten years ago if you had told me that autonomous, aka “self-driving” cars were going to be a reality in my lifetime, I wouldn’t have believed you. About two years ago I started doing research on autonomous vehicles (AVs) and discovered that they are coming much faster than most people realize or care to admit.

My dad wants nothing to do with a self-driving car, because he worries they are dangerous. I’d say that’s probably the number one fear I hear expressed about AVs. Rest assured, however, that their safety record is quite good. Google has now test driven its AVs well over a 1.5 million miles, and had 14 total accidents. Here’s the shocking part: only one of those 14 accidents was the self-driving car’s fault. The other 13 were all due to human error.

And, it is human error that makes the prospect of AVs so appealing. There are over 35,000 crash deaths on American highways every year. That is the equivalent of a 747 airplane crashing every week and killing everyone on board! (When you consider that the 747 is 47 years old this year, and has killed less than 4,000 people in that time span, you start to realize how tragic 35,000+ deaths are per year.) Ninety three percent (93%) of all auto accidents are caused by human error.

Think about it — a self-driving car won’t try to text and drive, or talk on the phone and drive, or apply makeup and drive, or eat and drive. No, an AV will just focus on the road and the traffic in the immediate vicinity. With distracted driving becoming such a common tragedy, anything we can do to reduce its occurrence is considered by most people to be a good thing.

You probably heard about the Tesla accident in 2016 that killed a man. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) cleared Tesla of any wrong-doing or blame in the accident. NHTSA classifies autonomous vehicles in one of five categories:

■ Level 0: Driver completely controls the vehicle at all times.

■ Level 1: Individual vehicle controls are automated, such as electronic stability control or automatic braking.

■ Level 2: At least two controls can be automated in unison, such as adaptive cruise control in combination with lane keeping.

■ Level 3: The driver can fully cede control of all safety-critical functions in certain conditions. The car senses when conditions require the driver to retake control and provides a "sufficiently comfortable transition time" for the driver to do so.

■ Level 4: The vehicle performs all safety-critical functions for the entire trip, with the driver not expected to control the vehicle at any time. As this vehicle would control all functions from start to stop, including all parking functions, it could include unoccupied cars.

Many of the cars available in today’s market are Level 1 or Level 2. The Tesla involved in the accident last year was a Level 3. Notice that Level 3 does require the driver to sometimes retake control of the vehicle. The man involved in that crash had several seconds to retake control of his car before hitting an 18 wheeler, but he was watching a movie and apparently did not pay attention to his surroundings, which the Tesla requires you to do for safe operation.

Experts suggest that Levels 2 and 3 are the most dangerous of all the levels, because the car’s features can lull the driver into a false sense of security, even though the driver is supposed to be willing and able to retake control of the vehicle when notified by the AV. That is apparently what happened to the driver of the Tesla.

Right now AVs are very expensive. But, with mass production of them around the corner, the cost of each vehicle is expected to come down to within a few thousand dollars of current car prices. Every car manufacturer has a plan for producing AVs, with some as early as this year. So while you won’t be required to own one, recognize that you will soon be sharing the road with AVs.

As AVs become mainstream, the cost of insuring them also will likely go down. The reason for that is that in a truly self-driving car, automobile accidents will typically be the car’s fault rather than the driver’s. It could be a glitch in the programming of the car, the mapping software, or some other system on the car, but if a human isn’t driving it, then the blame will have to rest with the manufacturer of the car.

Brenda Wells is the Robert F. Bird Distinguished Professor of Risk and Insurance at East Carolina University’s College of Business Administration. She can be reached at wellsbr@ecu.edu.