Reconsidering Safety Metrics Before Software Hits the Road

“Safety.” A single word that goes hand-in-hand (and rhymes!) with CAV. If much has been said and written about CAV safety already (including on this very blog, here and there,) two things are certain: while human drivers seem relatively safe – when considering the number of fatalities per mile driven – there are still too many accidents, and increasingly more of them. 

The traditional approach to safely deploying CAVs has been to make them drive, drive so many miles, and with so few accidents and “disengagements,” that the regulator (and the public) would consider them safe enough. Or even safer than us!  

Is that the right way? One can question where CAVs are being driven. If all animals were once equal, not every mile can be equally driven. All drivers know that a mile on a straight, well-maintained road by a fine sunny day is not the same as a mile drive on the proverbially mediocre Michigan roads during a bout of freezing rain. The economics are clear; the investments in AV technology will only turn a profit through mass deployment. Running a few demos and prototypes in Las Vegas won’t cut it; CAVs need to be ready to tackle the diversity of weather patterns we find throughout the world beyond the confines of the US South-West.

Beyond the location, there is the additional question of whether such “testing” method is the right one in the first place. Many are challenging what appears to be the dominant approach, most recently during this summer’s Automated Vehicle Symposium. Their suggestion: proper comparison and concrete test scenarios. For example, rather than simply aiming for the least amount of accidents per 1000’s of miles driven, one can measure break speed at 35mph, in low-visibility and wet conditions, when a pedestrian appears 10 yards in front of the vehicle. In such a scenario, human drivers can meaningfully be compared to software ones. Furthermore, on that basis, all industry players could come together to develop a safety checklist which any CAV must be able to pass before hitting the road. 

Developing a coherent (and standardized?) approach to safety testing should be at the top of the agenda, with a looming push in Congress to get the AV bill rolling. While there are indications that the industry might not be expecting much from the federal government, this bill still has the possibility of allowing CAVs on the road without standardized safety tests, which could result in dire consequences for the industry and its risk-seeking members. Not to mention that a high-risk business environment squeezes out players with shallower pockets (and possibly innovation) and puts all road users, especially those without the benefit of a metal rig around them, at physical and financial risk were an accident to materialize. Signs of moderation, such as Cruise postponing the launch of its flagship product, allows one to be cautiously hopeful that “go fast and break things” mentality will not take hold in the automated driving industry.

*Correction 9/9/19 – A correction was made regarding the membership to 1958 Agreement and participation at the World Forum.