Image credit: Steve Jurvetson on flickr

Proponents of autonomous vehicles have long argued that they will help reduce accidents and make the roads safer. In March 2015, Tesla CEO Elon Musk claimed autonomous vehicles would do a better job at driving than humans, going on to say that driving cars would eventually be outlawed as it’s “too dangerous.” However, the IIHS, a non-profit research and education organization, has downplayed the impact autonomous vehicles will have on road safety.

Note: For a vehicle to be fully autonomous, it must achieve Level 5 autonomy as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. Level 5 means a vehicle can operate by itself in all environments and requires zero human intervention. This level of autonomy hasn’t yet been reached and it’s unknown if/when it’ll occur.

Driving accidents in the U.S.

  • According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) more than six million car accidents occur every year in the U.S. (tweet this).
  • An average of 90 people die daily in vehicle accidents in the U.S., while 27% suffer nonfatal injuries, including some that result in permanent disabilities.
  • Every year, nearly three million drivers suffer an injury, with two million suffering a permanent injury.
  • In 2019, there were 36,096 motor vehicle fatalities, a 2% decrease from the previous year.
  • A 2015 report from the NHTSA found that 94% of crashes are due to human error such as speeding, fatigue, or drunk and distracted driving.

How do consumers feel about autonomous vehicles?

A January 2021 survey by AAA found that only 22% of respondents felt that automakers should focus on producing autonomous vehicles. 80% wanted automakers to improve existing vehicle safety systems such as automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assistance, as 58% wanted these features in their next vehicle. This is significant because it shows the majority of drivers are willing to embrace more complex vehicle technology if it improves safety.

However, only 14% of respondents said they’d feel safe riding in a fully autonomous vehicle. 54% said they would be afraid and 32% are hesitant. These results echo those from previous years’ surveys, which suggests there hasn’t been a noticeable shift in trust. Based on these findings, it’s clear there is still a significant amount of trepidation amongst U.S. drivers about autonomous vehicles as less than 15% feel comfortable traveling in one.

IIHS report

In June 2020, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that autonomous vehicles would struggle to eliminate the majority of crashes. Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president for research and co-author of the study, acknowledged that autonomous vehicles would be able to better identify hazards, however that isn’t enough to stop accidents.

The IIHS looked at more than 5,000 police-reported crashes from the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey. In each crash, at least one vehicle was towed away and emergency services were called to the scene. The IIHS found autonomous vehicles would be able to avoid 33% of the crashes as they have “more accurate perception than human drivers.” Though it says the remaining accidents couldn’t be avoided unless the vehicles were “specifically programmed to prioritize safety over speed and convenience.”

The IIHS identified the different driver-related factors that caused the crashes and separated them into five categories:

  1. “Sensing and perceiving errors included things like driver distraction, impeded visibility and failing to recognize hazards before it was too late.”
  2. “Predicting errors occurred when drivers misjudged a gap in traffic, incorrectly estimated how fast another vehicle was going or made an incorrect assumption about what another road user was going to do.”
  3. “Planning and deciding errors included driving too fast or too slow for the road conditions, driving aggressively or leaving too little following distance from the vehicle ahead.”
  4. “Execution and performance errors included inadequate or incorrect evasive maneuvers, overcompensation and other mistakes in controlling the vehicle.”
  5. “Incapacitation involved impairment due to alcohol or drug use, medical problems or falling asleep at the wheel.”

Waymo’s Simulations

In March 2021, Waymo (an autonomous vehicle subsidiary of Alphabet) claimed its artificial intelligence technology could avoid or mitigate the majority of a set of fatal accidents. Waymo looked at 72 crashes in Chandler, Arizona, that occurred between 2008-2017 to gauge how its self-driving technology would respond in similar situations. The company performed 91 simulations.


  • Waymo's vehicles "avoided or mitigated 88 out of 91 total simulations."
  • They also would have "reduced the likelihood of serious injury by a factor of 1.3 to 15 times,” meaning less chance of the driver's death as a result of injuries.
  • Waymo's vehicles successfully avoided all 20 simulations that involved a pedestrian or cyclist being struck by a driver.
  • However, they weren't able to avoid incidents in which someone died after being rear-ended by another car.
  • While Waymo doesn't believe it can eradicate fatalities, it thinks the best way to avoid serious injury is to employ an evasive maneuver — which its vehicles did in all simulations.

Final Thoughts

At the moment, fully autonomous vehicles don’t exist and projections for when they’ll become available range from 10 years to never. Until they achieve mass adoption, we won’t have enough data to make an accurate conclusion on if they’ll reduce accidents.

One thing that’s clear is the majority of people don’t yet feel comfortable with the idea of autonomous vehicles – 54% of drivers in the same AAA survey said they’d feel less safe sharing the road with an autonomous vehicle, while only 10% would feel safer. This creates a significant obstacle to mass adoption. Even if governments and automakers can prove fully autonomous vehicles are fit for use on public roads once they become available, a substantial education campaign would likely be needed to convince drivers about the benefits.

The good news is drivers have shown they’re willing to try new features that improve safety — if the government and automakers are able to demonstrate that autonomous vehicles reduce risks, this could help eliminate a major hurdle. Ultimately, the onus will fall on key stakeholders to design regulation and ensure existing infrastructure can support the mass adoption of autonomous vehicles to help improve safety.

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About the writer: Jigney Pathak is a Business Researcher at Inside who loves technology, finance & sports. He has a Bachelor of Business Administration with a finance specialization & has previously worked at Salesforce.