Could driverless cars increase the number of crashes on our roads?

UK insurers have expressed concerns that the evolution of automated driving technology could result in a short-term increase in crashes, and say that full vehicle automation should eventually deliver a reduction in accidents but, in the interim, assisted technology could increase risks.

According to the Automated Driving Insurer Group (ADIG), including the Association of British Insurers (ABI) in collaboration with Thatcham Research, the growth of assisted automotive technology could lead to initial confusion for drivers, who may be required to take back control of the vehicle at certain times.

The group has now published a 32-page report saying that international regulators need to make a clear distinction between ‘assisted’ and ‘automated’ systems which it says currently present an area of potential confusion.

In the Regulating Automated Driving report, prominent UK insurers say that vehicles should only be marketed as automated if they fulfil a number of criteria, including having sufficient capabilities to deal with virtually all situations on the road and avoid all conceivable crash types.

They should also be able to function adequately in the event of a partial system failure and come to a safe stop if they encounter a situation they can’t handle.

Peter Shaw, CEO of Thatcham Research, said: “Vehicles with intermediate systems that offer assisted driving still require immediate driver intervention if the car cannot deal with a situation. Systems like these are fast emerging and unless clearly regulated, could convince drivers that their car is more capable than it actually is. This risk of autonomous ambiguity could result in a short term increase in crashes.”

In June 2017, the UK government announced the introduction of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which is expected to supersede the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill. The Bill, outlined in the Queen’s Speech is intended to ensure the UK continues at the forefront of developing new technology in electric and automated road vehicles.

The Bill should:

  • allow the regulatory framework to keep pace with the fast evolving technology for electric cars, helping improve air quality
  • provide for the installation of charging points for electric and hydrogen vehicles
  • extend compulsory motor vehicle insurance to cover the use of automated vehicles, and to compensate third party victims where ‘caused by’ an autonomous vehicle in the absence of fault on the driver.

Under the terms of the Bill, the Government also plans to define what constitutes an automated vehicle.

However, the insurance industry believes a vehicle should only be sold to the public as an ‘automated’ vehicle when it reaches a level of automation where a driver can safely disengage in the knowledge that the car has sufficient capabilities to deal with virtually all situations, as well as avoiding almost all conceivable crash types and continuing to function adequately even in the event of a partial system failure.

The insurance industry recognises the benefits of driver assistance and automation come from eliminating driver errors that contribute to causing collisions. As an example, a selection of factors recorded by the Department for Transport last year as contributory in police reported UK injury crashes is shown below:

 

Contributing factor All accidents  Fatal accidents
Number % Number %
Driver/Rider error or reaction 127 72% 1000 68%
Behaviour or inexperience 291 25% 404 28%
Injudicious action 722 23% 417 28%
Impairment or distraction 804 13% 374 25%
Road environment contributed 692 12% 131 9%
Pedestrians 107 12% 264 18%
Vision affected by external factors 804 10% 111 8%
Other 101 5% 100 7%
Vehicle defects 830 2% 35 2%

*percentages will not add up to 100% as accidents can have more than one cause

 

The use of automated driving systems is expected to bring the benefits of accurate measurement of speed and trajectory and ‘always on’ vigilance, which are expected to improve on human performance. Given the frequency of failures to look and failures to judge as contributory factors, as shown above, these should be the main source of benefits, says the report.

However, the systems will also fully monitor and control speed and the distance to the vehicle in front. There is, therefore, an opportunity to maximise benefits by enforcing improved compliance with the speed limit and in good following practise, such as observing the two second rule, during assisted/automated driving, the report adds.

Last year in the US, electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla come under investigation by the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after the driver of a Tesla Model S in Florida was hit by an articulated lorry while using Tesla’s Autopilot semi-autonomous driving feature.

Neither the system nor the driver noticed an impending collision with the lorry. The investigation cleared Tesla of any safety-related defect trends and stressed the need for drivers to still pay attention when using the technology, which now uses a ‘strike-out’ strategy to ensure drivers are paying attention.

The ADIG paper also calls for more clarity over the naming of systems used for assisted driving to avoid drivers thinking their cars are fully automated. In the case of Tesla, the carmaker has come under criticism in the US and Europe for its use of the name ‘Autopilot’, which has been accused of being misleading.