Will driverless cars be safer than current vehicles?
In the latest episode of Journey Makers – the podcast series in which we explore not just what the future looks like, but how we’re going to get there – we’re taking on one of the most important issues facing the introduction of connected and autonomous vehicles.
It’s a topic that’s come up plenty of times in the series so far, and one that will invariably be mentioned in almost any discussion about CAVs.
We’re talking about safety.
From 2017-18, there were 1,770 reported road deaths in the UK and more than 26,500 people were killed or seriously injured.
The debate about how CAVs might affect these statistics can often be a tense one – and with good reason: there are few more serious questions than those that can be framed as a matter of life and death.
According to Deloitte’s 2018 UK Automotive Consumer Study, 49% of UK consumers are concerned about the safety of self-driving vehicles – though that figure represents a significant drop from the 73% recorded just a year earlier, in 2017.
Our own research has found that safety is the principal benefit driving CAVs forward. Two thirds of respondents to our Anticipating Anonymous survey said they believe these new vehicles will make our roads safer, and almost half cited safety as the main benefit that an effective roll-out of CAVs will bring.
But are traditional death and injury reports the only way to measure the safety of our vehicles? Isn’t safety also about how pedestrians and drivers feel too? We’ve all taken journeys that didn’t feel safe, even if they didn’t end in an accident.
How much of this issue is related to CAV technology itself, and will it ever be possible to eliminate human error? Fail-safes are one thing, but can we ensure that they are used only in the most extreme circumstances?
How can we test to ensure our roads – and passengers – are ready?
These are just a few of the questions we put to the experts in the latest episode of Journey Makers.
Pete Thomas, Professor of Road and Vehicle Safety at Loughborough University, argues that over the years we’ve developed some pretty robust safety measures – and that CAVs will need to first be proven to meet these measures, before being able to surpass them.
He says that being able to understand how accidents happen, and analysing the different things that currently cause them to occur, will be key to developing new safety protocols for driverless cars and environments.
This work goes beyond just protecting vehicle occupants too: before CAVs are able to roam our roads freely, we need to be able to ensure the safety of any other person or thing that might interact with them too.
Pete envisions this as a network of connected and autonomous vehicles that can be programmed to respond smartly and safely to their environment.
Meanwhile, Camilla Fowler, Head of Risk Management at TRL, says that consistency is key to establishing a framework that will define and demonstrate the safety of new CAV solutions.
In addition to this, being able to communicate openly, honestly, and transparently with the public will help to enhance trust in the new technology. In fact, bringing people along on the process in this way will be vital.
To do this, and to do so safely, Camilla advocates for a robust, three-tiered testing process that incorporates a variety of testbed setups.
The aim, of course, is to achieve the full safety potential of CAVs – a potential that Camilla says amounts to thousands of saved lives. But reaching that goal must incorporate an approach that foregrounds and emphasises the importance of safety at every single stage.