Almost Human But Not Quite – Autonomous Vehicles Drive Among Us
Right here in the greater Phoenix area, autonomous vehicles (AV) navigate our roads alongside the average car piloted by very human drivers. Over the past couple of years, we have wondered whether these cars and trucks would ever really be safe enough, or if the tech would ever be truly capable of preventing accidents.
In a recent Washington Post article, Megan McArdle, a columnist, describes her experience in a Waymo One fully autonomous taxi service. Her experience turned out to be mostly uneventful, and she even stated that after the initial oddness of the situation of there being no driver in the driver seat, she became bored enough to scroll on her phone as the taxi drove her to her destination.
During that ride, however, she noted that autonomous vehicles lacked the same interpretation skills as human drivers. At one point, a truck driver wished to belatedly get into the same lane as the taxi. McArdle described that it was obvious to her that the truck wished for the taxi to back up to allow him space to enter the lane, but the taxi could obviously not interpret the human driver’s intentions, so it simply stayed in its place until the truck driver resolved the issue himself, after some amount of honking.
This incident highlights one of the obstacles that autonomous vehicles still face. Humans have instinct, and we communicate in sometimes unpredictable ways that can only be interpreted by another human. McArdle puts it well, saying “The humans, in particular, are a problem, because for all their advantages (self-driving cars do not get impatient or distracted, intoxicated or exhausted), a 10-year-old human child is probably better at guessing what other people are likely to do when something unexpected happens. The 10-year-old would have understood, for example, that the truck wanted us to back up.”
Also, it should be noted that Waymo operates in California and Arizona currently, where weather tends to be on the clearer, sunnier side; and roads are wide and flat. These states serve as a safer driving environment than Washington or Maine, where skies might be gray and rainy; and curvy, hilly roads become icy in the winter.
How often do autonomous vehicles end up in accidents?
From July of 2021 to about May of 2022, there have been a reported 130 crashes involving fully autonomous vehicles across the country. Only 12 of those crashes occurred in Arizona, and most of them were vehicles belonging to the self-driving taxi-service Waymo. In that same timespan, conventional vehicles Arizona saw a major increase in traffic fatalities, “with the number reaching over 1,100, a 14% increase from 2019,” according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) as reported by AZMirror.
Of these 130 crashes, 108 of them reported no injuries, and most of the accidents occurred when a conventional vehicle collided with the autonomous vehicle from behind, often when the autonomous vehicle was stopped. “Which says something about how those autonomous vehicles are interacting with other drivers on the road,” stated Dr. Andrew Maynard, a self-driving car expert at Arizona State University.
Waymo states that it has more than 700 vehicles in its fleet, and it operates in Arizona and is testing their service in California. Other autonomous vehicle companies with vehicles on the road include Nuro and TuSimple. When it comes to semi-autonomous vehicles, the majority of them belong to Tesla, while Honda makes up the next closest group of vehicles with partially automated driver-assist systems. Unlike fully autonomous vehicles, semi-automated still requires the assistance of a driver that must be ready to take control of the vehicle at any moment.
While these numbers may seem promising, it should be noted that reports from the NHTSA aren’t exactly transparent or detailed when it comes to crash incidents concerning autonomous vehicles. Dr. Maynard states “There’s really not much you can do with the findings. All they tell you is that some cars crashed but you don’t know what percentage of cars crashed, how that compares to other vehicles on the road.”
Is it time to trust AVs? Our jury is still out
AV technology has come a long way over the decades, as McArdle attests. While this is promising news for those in our communities who have difficulty getting from place to place due to any number of reasons, it should still be noted that autonomous vehicles are not quite perfect. (Though, perhaps that is another thing they have in common with us human drivers.) If the progress we’ve made so far is any indication, then it may not be much longer before fully automated cars are as popular as conventional vehicles on the road, and seeing an empty driver’s seat won’t be a shocking sight.
We can see the many benefits of autonomous vehicles: they eliminate such risks as drunk or distracted driving, road-rage, and fatigue. In the future, a person who owns an autonomous vehicle may be able to take their own vehicle home after a night of partying, not requiring a designated driver or needing to spend money on a ride-share or taxi. A grandmother may be able to visit her grandchildren more often as her car will be able to drive her there more often than she would be willing to drive herself. The possibilities these vehicles provide could be lifesaving. Every day, steps are being made to make these vehicles as safe as possible for the occupants and those around them on the road.
While that future is getting closer and closer, it’s not here yet; AVs still present risks. We’re not sold on their safety, especially given that report on Tesla (and our own experiences with semi-autonomous tech). We still have a tremendous number of questions regarding liability. And if we’re honest, it’s still a little too “weird” to see cars moving without people behind the wheel. Until these fears are assuaged, we think we’ll skip those Waymo taxis for now.
If you have been involved in an accident with one of these semi-autonomous or fully autonomous vehicles, discuss your options with Phoenix car accident attorneys Plattner Verderame, P.C. by using our contact form. We maintain an additional office in Tempe. Call us any time.
I have been active in leadership in the Arizona Association for Justice (lawyers who represent injured folks, and formerly known as the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association) since 1985. I served as President in 1991. I was an active participant in battles to protect the Arizona Constitution from the insurance industry and big business interests in 1986, 1990 and 1994.
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