An Uber self-driving Volvo XC-90 in San Francisco. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Autonomous vehicles are already much safer than human drivers
A woman in Tempe, Arizona, has died after being struck by one of Uber’s self-driving Volvo XC-90s—the first known death of a pedestrian caused by an autonomous vehicle on public roads. The Uber vehicle was in autonomous mode with a human at the wheel when it struck the woman, who was jaywalking at night. Uber did not specify whether the accident occurred on Sunday night or Monday morning.
Uber announced that it has suspended testing of its self-driving cars in Tempe, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Toronto. “Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We are fully cooperating with local authorities in their investigation of this incident,” said Uber in a statement.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi tweeted, “Some incredibly sad news out of Arizona. We’re thinking of the victim’s family as we work with local law enforcement to understand what happened.”
Almost exactly a year ago today, Uber suspended its autonomous vehicle testing in Tempe, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco when one of its self-driving cars t-boned a Honda CRV that had turned left in front of the Uber vehicle. The collision caused a three-car accident and Uber suspended its AV testing for a weekend.
Autonomous vehicles are, by and large, already safer than human-driven cars. Tesla’s first driverless fatality occurred after 130M miles in autopilot mode; in 2016 automotive fatalities occurred at an average rate of one death per 84.7M miles.
Driving a car is the most dangerous activity an average person performs every day, and car accidents used to be the leading cause of accidental death until they were overtaken in 2016 by opioid overdoses.
About 30,000 Americans die in car accidents each year, but the rate of automobile fatalities per miles driven has fallen dramatically, mostly because of safety improvements in cars. In 1921, there were 24.09 fatalities per 100M miles driven; by 1945, that had fallen to 10.71; by 1965, the rate had fallen to 5.3 fatalities per 100M miles; the rate has been less than 2 deaths per 100M miles driven since 1991.
Even as fatalities per mile have fallen, a huge increase in overall number of miles driven has kept the absolute number of automotive deaths above 35K per year since the 1950s. The absolute number of deaths peaked at nearly 55K in 1972, and has been falling, with some cyclical movement, ever since. The graph below shows the relationship between these two traffic death statistics, total population, and total miles driven.
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