ANN ARBOR, Michigan — Self-driving cars may never be as safe as an experienced, middle-aged driver, according to a new research paper by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
The researchers make several key points, including "it is not a foregone conclusion that a self-driving vehicle would ever perform more safely than an experienced, middle-aged driver."
These drivers have acquired years of driving experience that enable them to predict the behaviors of other drivers. The researchers question whether all of that experience "could exhaustively be programmed into a computer or even quantified."
Also, the researchers warn: "The expectation of zero fatalities with self-driving vehicles is not realistic." They use the example of a drunk pedestrian stepping suddenly into the roadway.
"Although a self-driving vehicle could, in principle, respond faster than a human driver and provide optimal braking performance, it still might not be able to stop in time because of braking limitations," they wrote.
In addition, the researchers predict that during the transition period when conventional and self-driving vehicles share the road, "safety might actually worsen, at least for the conventional vehicles." For example, drivers today make eye contact and proceed according to the feedback received from other drivers, something that would be absent in interactions with self-driving vehicles.
Self-driving cars from Google, Mercedes-Benz and Audi have been grabbing headlines lately. Google's pod car is being developed with help from Detroit automakers and suppliers, while the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion concept was a standout at the recent 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. Audi recently showed off a self-driving A7 Sportback prototype that made an impressive trek from Silicon Valley, California to Las Vegas.
Edmunds says: This study raises lots of interesting questions as consumers and automakers edge ever closer to self-driving vehicles.