Autonomous vehicles could save thousands of lives with 10% improvement

Published: November 9, 2017

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones





Ensuring autonomous vehicles reach the consumer market sooner will save thousands of lives per year. A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests driverless vehicle technology would only need to be “moderately better” to save many lives, without the need for the technology to be perfected.

Autonomous vehicles come in several classes, ranging from basic in-car abilities to full autonomy where the vehicle performs all tasks:

  • SAE Level 0 – human does everything, like current cars
  • SAE Level 1 – some in-car systems can aid the human in the operation of the vehicle
  • SAE Level 2 – the autonomous tech can complete some driving tasks, but human monitoring is needed.
  • SAE Level 3 – the system conducts some driving and monitors some of the environment, but human must be ready as backup
  • SAE Level 4 – the system can conduct driving tasks without any input from humans. However, the system only works under some conditions. This is where the current market is.
  • SAE Level 5 is when the car can perform all tasks without the need for a human driver.

While higher SAE levels are not expected for years (SAE Level 5 is over a decade away), the RAND Corporation report found that at just 10% better (Improve10) than current abilities, autonomous vehicles could save thousands of lives per year in the United States alone. This number could increase to hundreds of thousands over coming decades, even if the technology does not improve more than 10%. The company argues this is better than simply waiting for driverless vehicles to get 75% (Improve75) to 90% (Improve90) better.

 “We find that, in the short term, more lives are cumulatively saved under a more permissive policy (Improve10) than stricter policies requiring greater safety advancements (Improve75 or Improve90) in nearly all conditions, and those savings can be significant — hundreds of thousands of lives,” researchers wrote in the report, titled The Enemy of Good: Estimating the Cost of Waiting for Nearly Perfect Automated Vehicles. “In the long term, more lives are cumulatively saved under an Improve10 policy than either Improve75 or Improve90 policies under all combinations of conditions we explored. In many cases, those savings can be more than half a million lives.”

“There is good reason to believe that reaching significant safety improvements may take a long time and may be difficult prior to deployment. Therefore, the number of lives lost while waiting for significant improvements prior to deployment may be large.”

RAND Corporation, a research group, does admit there are uncertainties surrounding autonomous technology, but its study was based on “hundreds” of different outcomes” that predicted how the technology will develop in coming years and decades.

“Our work suggests that it is sensible to allow autonomous vehicles on America’s roads when they are judged to be just moderately safer than having a person behind the wheel,” said Nidhi Kalra, co-author of the study and director of RAND’s San Francisco office. “If we wait until these vehicles are nearly perfect, our research suggests the cost will be many thousands of needless vehicle crash deaths caused by human mistakes. It’s the very definition of perfect being the enemy of good.”