Self-driving cars may not be as safe as originally thought.

Fully autonomous vehicles have long been heralded by the automotive industry as a solution to road deaths. However, self-driving cars could likely only prevent a third (33%) of all road crashes. That’s according to a new analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Traffic experts say that roughly nine in ten crashes result from human error. Additionally, more than 36,000 people in the U.S. are estimated to have died in car crashes in 2019. However, after reviewing data, the IIHS, found that most crashes would be caused by mistakes that self-driving vehicle systems are not equipped to handle any better than human drivers.

Companies developing self-driving vehicles, including traditional automakers and technology companies, have positioned fully autonomous driving to as a way to eliminate human error and reduce road deaths. Unfortunately for the likes of Tesla and Cadillac, it’s not that simple. There are multiple levels of autonomous vehicles. The technology is still quite far away from being completely reliable. That’s despite using deceptively named features like “Autopilot” or “Super Cruise.”

Crashes Are Complicated

The IIHS study outlined a more nuanced picture of human driver error. It showed that not all mistakes can be eliminated by camera, radar, and sensor-based driverless technology. Researchers analyzed more than 5,000 police-reported crashes nationwide. They found that only one-third of all crashes were the result of sensing and perception errors that could possibly be corrected by self-driving vehicles.

The IIHS concluded that most crashes are the result of complex errors. They include making wrong assumptions about what other drivers or pedestrians are going to do, driving too fast or too slow for road conditions, or making incorrect evasive maneuvers. In the end, the IIHS determined that most vehicle crashes are the result of a combination of multiple mistakes.

“Our goal was to show that if you don’t deal with those issues, self-driving cars won’t deliver massive safety benefits,” said the IIHS in its study. In short, autonomous vehicles aren’t likely to be some miracle savior when it comes to vehicle safety. Driver error will always be a factor.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the lobby group representing most major automakers, attempted to calm fears. They said in a statement that autonomous vehicles still hold “tremendous promise.”  The Alliance also noted the benefits of autonomous delivery services, especially in our current situation of global quarantine. They claimed self-driving vehicles can “usher in a new era of mobility for those currently limited due to physical challenges as well as contactless movement.” Sure, maybe they can. But will less people end up injured or killed by them?


Devon is a writer, editor, and veteran of the online publishing world. He has a particular love for classic muscle cars.