The Driverless Dilemma

As 21st century technological advancements welcomes the autonomous car, controversial debates continue over whether such advancements are considered a safe form of transportation.

The first fatal autonomous car crash took place in May of 2016. Although Tesla claims that the accident was due to “extremely rare circumstances” the question of safety has become more prevalent than ever. While Tesla received the initial implications of this event, so did the autonomous car industry as a whole. Conversations surrounding safety concerns of autonomous vehicles are at a standoff with the undeniable social benefits provided by this developing technology. As 21st century technological advancements welcomes the autonomous car, controversial debates continue over whether such advancements are considered a safe form of transportation. Although safety concerns rightfully fall under the most pressing issues, do these implications completely undermine positive aspects of the autonomous car?

“Perfect safety is really an impossible goal,” Elon Musk states. “It’s about improving the probability of safety. There won’t ever be zero fatalities, there won’t ever be zero injuries.” Tesla reports that autopilot driving is safer than human driving. Their records have determined that after 130 millions miles of auto piloted driving there has been only one fatality, in comparison to one fatality in 100 million miles for human drivers. It’s easy to say autonomous cars are safer with this prevalent statistic but you have to take into consideration that there are simply too few auto piloted miles to make a meaningful comparison. Driving is deadly, this fact is unavoidable. There are nearly 90 traffic related deaths each day in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that nearly all of these fatalists are human errors, this leaves the conversation open to the potential that autonomous systems could reduce death tolls. Autonomous systems are theoretically safer than human drivers, but how can they prove this? Studies show that test driving to prove safety is not realistic, and that alternative safety testing’s are only in the process of development. “Testers cannot drive their way to safety,” says Nidhi Kalra, a senior scientist at a nonprofit research organization. Studies show that autonomous vehicles will need to drive hundreds of millions of miles if not hundreds of billions of miles to develop enough data to sufficiently demonstrate their safety in a statistically fair manner. In order to continue to advance autonomous technologies to level three and four for public use, alternative testing must take place. This includes accelerated testing; virtual testing, simulators, mathematical modeling, scenario testing and pilot studies. Many of these alternative testing includes computer modeling which generate more reliable data.

Self-governed motion in such a complex and evolving environment is an impressive feat. Will humanity one day completely rely on such technology for transportation, no one will know for sure. The process to complete this goal will be as interesting as it is astonishing. RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution helping improve policy decision making with the help of research analysis. Their researchers have determined that the benefits of autonomous technology outweigh the disadvantages, but this is just one angle to a multidimensional issue. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, believes there is no completely safe alternative to human driving, but rather just increasing the probability of safety. Nidhi Kalra brings attention to the fact that “test-driving to prove safety is an impossible proposition.” Determining the extent at which autonomous technology will be part of our transportation system is as much of a conversation about research, sufficient data and social benefits as it is a conversation about ethics and safety. It all boils down to one question. Do we deploy fully autonomous technology to the public, knowing we can’t entirely prove its safety?


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Focus, By Policy. “Site-wide Navigation.” Autonomous Vehicles Cannot Be Test-Driven Enough Miles to Demonstrate Their Safety. 2016.

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Student Author: Cully Brown, UVM

Faculty Advisor: Dr. Rob Williams, Ph.D., UVM

Bio of Author – Cully Brown is a student athlete at the University of Vermont: Major in Sustainability Studies with a minor in Green Building Design and represents UVM as a Cross Country skier.

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