Autonomous vehicles may not decrease accident rates yet

Published: February 20, 2017

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones



Until full autonomous vehicles are available, traffic accidents are unlikely to decrease as current levels of human interaction could be a hindrance. Experts speaking at a House of Representatives committee last week also warned that autonomous vehicle technology will provide security risks that could lead to cyber-attacks and terrorism.

“Transportation is one of the areas that receives a lot of attention from hacking because it is a way to disrupt our transportation system,” said Nidhi Kalra, co-director and senior information scientist with the Rand Corp.’s Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty.

Kalra, who has a PhD in robotics, was speaking in Washington D.C. has part of the Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection of the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. The hearing was titled Self Driving Cars: The Road to Deployment.

Kalra says that potential hacking of driverless cars “is a very real threat,” Kalra replied. “It’s not only hacking for fun and profit but autonomous vehicles provide an avenue for terrorism as well … the threat is no longer just suicide bombers that blow themselves up but now we have vehicles that can drive around. I don’t want to overstate the risk at this time but we need to think very broadly around cyber security.

Cyber security is not something that can be shrink wrapped on top of the vehicle because there are so many parts that contribute to the ultimate vehicle, but it has to be baked in from the ground up,” Kalra said.

Kalra also showed concern about current levels of autonomy and suggests that current levels of human interaction will prove a hindrance. As such, expected collapses in traffic accidents are unlikely to happen soon. It is widely predicted that autonomous technology will reduce accidents significantly, but until full autonomy is achieved, that is unlikely.

The U.S. Federal Autonomous Vehicles Policy sets out the following SAE criteria (paraphrased) for determining automation:

  • 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.

There is evidence to show that Level 3 may show an increase in traffic crashes and so it is defensible and plausible for auto makers to skip Level 3,” Kalra said. “I don’t think there is enough evidence to suggest that it should be prohibited at this time but it does pose safety concerns that a lot of auto makers are recognizing and trying to avoid.

The caution mirrors similar words from a Toyota executive. Last week, Gill Pratt, executive technical advisor and CEO of Toyota Research Institute, said that current autonomous vehicles only work under certain conditions. He too believes breakthroughs will only be made when full autonomy is reached.