Are Self-Driving Cars Really That Bad?

Posted on Saturday, Sep 9, 2023 by Ned Bellavance

Featured in this episode of Tech News of the Week

Ars Technica has published a lengthy article about how self-driving cars are actually pretty good™ and we should be less pearl-clutchy about their roll-out in Arizona and California.

As much as I’d like to completely dismiss this article as corporate-shillery, the thing is; I respect Ars Technica and they do, in fact, back their claims up with data and not mere meme-worthy anecdotes about autonomous vehicles being stymied by traffic cones.

Their analysis of accident data involving the cars shows that of the 4 million driverless miles completed by Waymo (that is without a safety driver) there were 37 incidents, the vast majority of which appear to be the fault of a human driver hitting the Waymo vehicle. Because their vehicles are highly instrumented and capture everything, we have a pretty good idea of what happened in each incident.

I should say that even though the other driver was technically at fault, there’s also a good chance that the Waymo was driving like a total asshole, not actually breaking any rules, but also not following the unwritten rules of the road- i.e doing 25 in a 25. Still, 37 incidents over 4 million miles with no fatalities or major injuries is a pretty goddamn good driving record and certainly better than most humans, which according to the NHTSB have a major accident every 500,000 miles.

Despite all the data and evidence to the contrary, I think we (Chris and I) still have a visceral distaste for driverless vehicles and an incredibly low threshold for error. And the rise of generative AI has led to even less confidence in the overall accuracy of AI powered systems. Any number of accidents, no matter how minor or fault-less on the autonomous vehicle side will be viewed as a failure and cause to take drastic action like, I don’t know, halving the available fleet of Cruise vehicles in San Francisco.

And I’m going to be honest here, faced with a choice between a human-operated taxi and an autonomous Waymo, I’m going to pick the taxi every time. And I hate talking to strangers and awkward interactions in a car. I have no doubt that Waymo and Cruise are the future, but it might take a generation or two to let go of our preconceptions and biases.