Could driverless cars really cut road accidents by 95%?

A driverless Hyundai Genesis. Image: IoME.

A new report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IoME) is leading on a striking statistic. It claims that the introduction of driverless cars "could prevent up to 95 per cent of all traffic accidents". 

This sounds pretty great, especially since 1,755 people died in road accidents in 2014 in the UK alone. If we apply the IoME's metric, we can guess that a fully driverless road network would have saved 1,667 lives that year.

So if that's true, then why aren't we going full speed ahead (sorry) with autonomous vehicles?  

Unfortunately, when you look at the report more closely, it becomes clear that the claim isn't quite what it seems. It's drawn from the fact that the National Highway Traffic Safety association estimates that 95 per cent of accidents are down to driver error. Ergo, the headline writer must have thought, removing drivers from the equation would surely cut out those accidents completely. 

Once we live in a world of 100 per cent driverless vehicles, it is possible this could be the case. However, in that environment it seems likely that accidents would come from other directions: technology failure, bad weather, or loss of signal, say. While unpredictable situations may be rarer on an autonomous road network, the cars may still be less well equipped to deal with them than a human driver would be.

The bigger issue, though, is that we won't reach a fully autonomous network any time soon. First, we have to get through an era of mixed driverless and non-driverless cars on the road. Especially at the beginning, drivers might be nervous about autonomous vehicles, which could actually increase driver error, not reduce it. 

This point has also been missed by those who point out that, in all the accidents involving driverless cars during testing, the cars with drivers have almost always been at fault. No car exists in a vacuum: the driverless vehicle still wasn't able to prevent the accident, and it's hard to know if the non-human decisions of the vehicle may have contributed in some small way. 

In its report, the IoME calls for new regulatory regimes, training for owners of driverless cars and new signage and markings to prepare for the new cars. But it's the interaction of driver and driverless that urgently needs exploring if we're planning to mix the two in the very near future. 


17 things the proposed “Tulip” skyscraper that London mayor Sadiq Khan just scrapped definitely resembled

Artist's impression. See if you can guess which one The Tulip is. Image: Foster + Partners.

Sadiq Khan has scrapped plans to build a massive glass thing in the City of London, on the grounds it would knacker London’s skyline. The “Tulip” would have been a narrow, 300m skyscraper, designed by Norman Foster’s Foster & Partners, with a viewing platform at the top. Following the mayor’s intervention, it now won’t be anything of the sort.

This may be no bad thing. For one thing, a lot of very important and clever people have been noisily unconvinced by the design. Take this statement from Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, from earlier this year: “This building, a lift shaft with a bulge on top, would damage the very thing its developers claim they will deliver – tourism and views of London’s extraordinary heritage.”

More to the point, the design was just bloody silly. Here are some other things that, if it had been built, the Tulip would definitely have looked like.

1. A matchstick.

2. A drumstick.

3. A cotton ear bud.

4. A mystical staff, of the sort that might be wielded by Gandalf the Grey.

5. A giant spring onion.

6. A can of deodorant, from one of the brands whose cans are seemingly deliberately designed in such a way so as to remind male shoppers of the fact that they have a penis.

7. A device for unblocking a drain.

8. One of those lights that’s meant to resemble a candle.

9. A swab stick, of the sort sometimes used at sexual health clinics, in close proximity to somebody’s penis.

10.  A nearly finished lollipop.

11. Something a child would make from a pipe cleaner in art class, which you then have to pretend to be impressed by and keep on show for the next six months.

12. An arcology, of the sort seen in classic video game SimCity 2000.

13. Something you would order online and then pray will arrive in unmarked packaging.

14. The part of the male anatomy that the thing you are ordering online is meant to be a more impressive replica of.

15. A building that appears on the London skyline in the Star Trek franchise, in an attempt to communicate that we are looking at the FUTURE.

14a. Sorry, the one before last was a bit vague. What I actually meant was: a penis.

16. A long thin tube with a confusing bulbous bit on the end.

17. A stamen. Which, for avoidance of doubt, is a plant’s penis.

One thing it definitely does not resemble:

A sodding tulip.

Anyway, it’s bad, and it’s good the mayor has blocked it.

That’s it, that’s the take.

(Thanks to Anoosh Chakelian, Jasper Jackson, Patrick Maguire for helping me get to 17.)

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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