Self-Driving Cars and Personal Injury: Are Smart Features Making Cars Safer or More Dangerous?

9 May 2024

In recent decades, automakers around the world have spent countless billions on autonomous vehicle technology. They're doing so because everyone agrees that self-driving cars will be the next killer app in the industry. Unfortunately, the road to getting there hasn't been as smooth as those automakers have hoped.

On the contrary, the short history of autonomous vehicle technology is one filled with countless technological failures and accidents. In San Francisco, CA, a hotbed for autonomous vehicle testing, there have already been dozens of accidents—including at least one that seriously injured a pedestrian.

However, fully autonomous vehicles aren't the only type of self-driving technology out there. There are also countless new vehicles on US roads with complex driver-assist systems. These vehicles have the same features as self-driving models, except that they require a driver's hands on the wheel at all times. And those vehicles are causing havoc on the roads. In one 10-month span, in fact, automakers reported 400 accidents involving vehicles with driver-assist systems in use.

All of this is to say that the development of self-driving vehicle technology is not without risk. And at this stage, it begs a serious question—are smart autonomous vehicle technologies making us less safe on the road? Here's the answer to that question, based on all available data.

The Safety Potential of Autonomous Driving Technology

Without a doubt, the various technological elements that make up today's driver-assist systems and tomorrow's fully autonomous vehicles have the potential to save lives. How many lives? To figure that out, consider the following.

Each year in the US, there are approximately 1.7 million rear-end vehicle collisions. Those accidents create approximately 1,700 fatalities and 500,000 additional injuries. And yet, a study of vehicles that include forward collision warning (FCW) systems and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) functionality indicates that those two technologies alone could reduce such accidents by a whopping 50%. That means universal adoption of FCW and AEB technology could save at least 850 lives every year.

Another study indicated that equipping vehicles with FCW, lane departure warning (LDW), blind spot warning, and curve-adaptive headlights could cut car accident rates by up to one-third. If you consider that there are approximately 43,000 fatal car crashes in the US every year, those technologies alone could prevent 14,190 of those.

Assessing the Human Element

You'll notice that so far, I've only mentioned driver-assist technologies that don't directly control the operation of a vehicle. And therein lies the problem. It seems that the more self-driving technology you put in a vehicle, the less responsible drivers become. According to a recent survey, drivers are developing some disturbing habits connected to autonomous driving technology.

In the survey, a shocking 61% of respondents indicated that advanced driver-assist technologies make them more comfortable looking away from the road while driving. A full 58% of those with vehicles equipped with pedestrian detection admitted that they've stopped looking around for pedestrians. And maybe worst of all, 57% of those with AEB-equipped vehicles report it making them comfortable with looking away from the road while driving.

If you examine those results together, a pretty clear picture starts to emerge. It's that any vehicle technology that takes the onus of safety off the driver makes drivers less careful and more distracted. And that tendency is nowhere more pronounced than it is in a specific driver cohort: Tesla vehicle owners.

The Electric Elephant in the Room

If you go looking for information about self-driving technologies and vehicle safety, it won't take long for you to notice a trend. It's that vehicles from all-electric automaker Tesla seem to get involved in a shocking number of car crashes. And you're not imagining it. According to insurance company data, Tesla owners have the highest accident rate of any type of vehicle. Between 2022 and 2023, Tesla drivers had an accident rate of 23.54 per 1,000 drivers. And if you dig a bit deeper, you'll find that a huge percentage of those crashes happened either completely or in part due to the automaker's Autopilot feature.

So far, Tesla's self-driving feature is responsible for 736 crashes and 17 fatalities. And there are some important reasons for that which tie into this discussion. One of them is the fact that Tesla's Autopilot isn't capable of fully autonomous operation. It's just the automaker's name for its particular flavor of driver-assist technologies. Like others in its class, Autopilot requires drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times.

And yet, the company has spent over nine years advertising the Autopilot feature as a Full Self-Driving Capability. And given what we know about driver tendencies surrounding autonomous technologies, likely explains the high accident rate among Tesla drivers. Those drivers, lulled by the promise of illusory self-driving capabilities, seem to take chances they wouldn't take in other vehicles. To wit, most of the accidents involving the Autopilot feature happen as onboard computers record the driver taking their hands off the steering wheel for extended periods.

The Takeaway

The main takeaway from all of this is simple. It's that self-driving and autonomous vehicle technology can and should make driving much safer. However, until those technologies mature into truly autonomous vehicles, they're having the opposite effect. While features like FCW and AEB do decrease fatality rates in accidents, they may be contributing to driver behavior that causes more accidents. Of course, there's no precise way to tell if that particular tradeoff is worth it, safety-wise.

Furthermore, it also seems clear that the more drivers believe that their vehicles can handle the driving for them, the less engaged in the task they get. Therefore, until vehicles can handle all of the driving for their occupants without human intervention, we may see an ever-increasing number of injuries and fatalities connected to driver-assist technologies. That reality puts more pressure than ever before on the automakers working toward full vehicle autonomy to get their current technologies and designs to the finish line.