Study: In crash recreations, self-driving vehicles avoid most wrecks

Self-driving vehicles will never make certain serious mistakes human drivers commit far too often. For instance, autonomous vehicles will never drive drunk on the Foothill Freeway and cause a motor vehicle crash. Self-driving cars will never check their phones on the Ventura Freeway (or any other highway, street or road). Autonomous vehicles won’t drive at excess speeds, accelerate through red lights or tailgate dangerously close to other vehicles in order to force them to the right so that the autonomous vehicle can pass.

Self-driving vehicles will avoid all of those outright dangerous driving behaviors that the worst human drivers engage in. All of that is a given when it comes to autonomous vehicles, but what is not yet clear is how well self-driving vehicles will be able to recognize errors made by drivers in real time and respond in safe ways that avoid collisions and injuries.

Recreating wreck scenarios

Google’s self-driving technology company Waymo has taken a step toward providing answers with a first-of-its-kind study in which the company’s researchers reconstructed real auto crashes that took place in the Phoenix metro area where Waymo operates.

The researchers substituted Waymo self-driving vehicles in place of the vehicles and drivers actually involved in the wrecks.

Crash avoidance

Of the 91 recreated crash scenarios, researchers found that Waymo’s autonomous driving system avoided collisions in 84 of them. In the 52 scenarios in which the self-driving system replaced the driver who caused the crash, the system prevented all 52 collisions.

In the 39 scenarios in which the Waymo autonomous vehicle was in the role of the responding driver attempting to avoid the instigating driver, Waymo’s self-driving system avoided crashes in 32 of the scenarios. In the remaining seven crash recreations, the system lessened the severity of the collisions in four of the crash recreations.

No one knows when self-driving technology will be rolled out to the public by Waymo or one of its many competitors. It’s certain, however, that self-driving vehicles will need to co-exist with human-piloted vehicles for years before the technology is in a majority of vehicles.

Experts say the Waymo study helps clarify the potential the autonomous tech has to make driving safer in that transition period.