Well according to the pundits this week may be a significant one. It’s got nothing to do with US politics. It’s got nothing to do with the refugee crisis. It’s got nothing to do with oil, gold, China or interest rates.
If we’re to believe the pessimists, this week will go down in history as the end of self-driving cars. I’ll explain why in a moment. But before I do, I think it’s important you know what the most dangerous thing on our roads is.
Here’s a clue, it’s not cars.
The World Health Organisation estimates 1.25 million deaths occur on the roads every year. And it’s been quite constant at that level for at least a decade.
But deaths are just one piece of the puzzle. There are millions more accidents that occur in which people don’t die. These accidents often cause injury. Sometimes permanent, sometimes temporary. All of them come at a cost. Cost to individuals, insurance companies, businesses and taxpayers.
The most dangerous thing on the road
The US Department of Transport (DoT) undertook a massive ‘Crash Causation Survey’ from 2005 to 2007. And in February last year they published their findings. Of 2.189 million crashes, 2.046 of them were caused by driver error. That’s 94% of all accidents.
The DoT further breaks down the numbers into sub categories. These categories are recognition error, decision error, performance error and non-performance error.
Of these categories they were able to attribute which reason was the cause of the accident. Here’s the breakdown,
- Recognition error (41%),
- Decision error (33%),
- Performance error (11%),
- Non-performance error (i.e. sleep, that accounts for 7% of all errors).
- And, ‘other’ (8%).
What this proves is that humans are fallible. We make mistakes. We fall asleep. We speed; we’re reckless; we don’t judge conditions properly; we overcompensate; we can’t concentrate every waking moment. Sometimes we make stupid decisions. The most dangerous thing on the roads is people.
That’s why self-driving cars are coming. They’re going to make transportation safer, more efficient, and will change the very fabric of society.
But if you believe some of the news reports from yesterday and today, you might think we’ll never get self-driving cars.
First thing I do when I get up most mornings is turn on the news. Sky News, Bloomberg, CNBC, and Al Jazeera are a few of the options to choose from. I’m what you might call a ‘flicker’. I’ll flick from one to the other, watching a few minutes of each. It helps to get an idea of the major stories happening any given day.
First thing Tuesday morning every major news outlet was covering one major story. All of them. Sky News even had a ‘Sky Debate’; you could tweet your opinions in under the #SKYDEBATE hashtag.
It was all about self-driving cars.
You see, Google’s self-driving car had an accident. Their Lexus RX450h self-driving car collided with a bus. This must be proof that self-driving cars will never enter the mainstream. Proof that they will never be as safe on our roads as we expect them to be. The media was all over this like a bad rash — it reminded me of the people who said the internet would never take off.
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It’s never as bad as the news makes it out to be
Sure the self-driving came to blows with a bus. It’s only when you go into the finer details of the story that things begin to properly unfold. Here’s what Google said in their latest ‘Self-Driving Car Project Monthly Report’,
‘On February 14, our vehicle was driving autonomously and had pulled toward the right-hand curb to prepare for a right turn. It then detected sandbags near a storm drain blocking its path, so it needed to come to a stop. After waiting for some other vehicles to pass, our vehicle, still in autonomous mode, began angling back toward the center of the lane at around 2 mph — and made contact with the side of a passing bus traveling at 15 mph. Our car had detected the approaching bus, but predicted that it would yield to us because we were ahead of it.’
In other words the accident was like the millions of other accidents that happen around the world. Now here’s where things get really interesting. What Google does next is exactly why self-driving cars will be a major part of our future.
In Google’s February report they go on to say,
‘We’ve now reviewed this incident (and thousands of variations on it) in our simulator in detail and made refinements to our software. Our cars will more deeply understand that buses and other large vehicles are less likely to yield to us than other types of vehicles, and we hope to handle situations like this more gracefully in the future.’
It’s where they explain ‘our cars will more deeply understand’ that’s important. It means that when this situation occurs again, as it likely will, the cars will be better.
Self-driving cars will learn all the time, just like a real, live brain. They will pass this new knowledge on to other self-driving cars — instantly.
They will be full of thousands of sensors, processors, and small supercomputers making decisions. The ability for them to proactively take action well before something happens is like nothing a human can do. They can react, make decisions and analyse a situation faster than a human ever could. They aren’t emotional, don’t get tired, don’t fall asleep, drink or take drugs. They’re not human.
And that’s exactly why they can provide a safer road experience for us all. Self-driving cars are coming. One minor accident isn’t going to stop that. Get ready. Because transportation, mobility as you know it is about to undergo a massive change.