Should We Expect Self-Driving Cars to Be as Safe as Airplanes?

Why isn’t there zero tolerance for automobile crashes?

Checking news on a smartphone while the car is driven by an autopilot. Stock photo.

Checking news on a smartphone while the car is driven by an autopilot. Stock photo.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released data on 10 months of crashes—some of them fatal—involving vehicles with automated driver assistance systems. The story was picked up by the New York Times. Of the 392 crashes in the United States that involved vehicles with driver assistance systems, the majority (273, or 70%) were Teslas. Six people in Teslas died and five more were seriously injured while their vehicles had turned on “Autopilot” or Tesla’s even more hands-off “Full Self Driving” mode.

To be fair, there may be more Teslas on the road with advanced driver assistance systems than other brands of vehicles. The New York Times reports that about 830,000 Teslas are equipped with Autopilot or Full Self Driving.

In addition to Tesla, the NHTSA counted 90 Hondas and 10 Subarus with self-driving or driver assistance systems. Ford, General Motors, BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai and Porsche each reported 5 or fewer vehicles with such systems. Mercedes Benz and Audi were the only major automotive companies to escape, with their reputations for safety intact.

Tesla fans and technology enthusiasts point to the inherent safety of the company’s automated driving vehicles compared to vehicles driven purely by humans, who are prone to distraction, can drive after drinking alcohol, can be prone to inattention and can be advanced in age … to cite just a few of the long list of our potential deficiencies. A self-driving car, bristling with sensors and technology, is indeed far less likely to kill or maim than cars that are fully under our control. But others ask if comparing self-driving cars to normal cars is the proper comparison. Are we setting the bar too low?

“When a Boeing 737 falls out of the sky, we don’t ask, ‘Is it falling out of the sky more or less than other planes?’” said Bryant Walker Smith, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina’s law and engineering schools, who was quoted in the New York Times. “Crashes on our roads are equivalent to several plane crashes every week.”

Should we allow autonomous vehicles on the road just because they are unlikely (though not guaranteed) to drive into opposing traffic, a reoccurring nightmare on highways in Florida, a state where its aging residents seem to cling to the right to drive as much as Texans seem cling to the right to own guns.

Or should we insist on a higher standard? Why not hold the automobile industry to the same standard as the aviation industry? We expect Boeing’s and Airbus’ aircraft to never crash. We have zero tolerance for passenger aircraft crashes. We demand that every aircraft we board not only deliver us safely but also not spill our drink in the process. It’s a crazy, unrealistic expectation if you examine it too closely. We are hurtling through sub-zero thin air in thin aluminum tubes powered by massive engines with turbine blades spinning so fast that they occasionally are launched like spears. Relax: engineers know that this sometimes happens. We have learned to enshroud the blades in armor, so they don’t pierce the aircraft’s thin skin and find their way into the cabin. Most of the time, anyway.

That is too much information for the flying public. If they were to learn about uncontained engine failure, as the above phenomenon is known, they would likely abandon flying altogether. Ignorance is bliss. Keep us safe—flying over mountains, over oceans, across deserts, across wilderness areas, up and over hostile expanses—without a care in the world except which movie to watch on the flight entertainment system. All that congestion over O’Hare? You guys are pilots. Deal with it.

Demanding a 100 percent safety record from a mode of transportation that is inherently only a bit safer than being shot out of a cannon may have seemed unrealistic in the early days of aviation, when planes were used for barnstorming, crop dusting and bombing, rather than carrying passengers, and the only duties were those we entrusted to brave men in open cockpits. Planes falling out of the sky was a routine occurrence at the time. But the fledgling airline industry realized that it would never get off the ground unless it delivered one safe landing for each and every takeoff.

The 100 percent safety expectation has persisted to this day. The disregard for it, such as is exposed in the Netflix documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, which excoriates Boeing for being more conscious of profit and stock prices than safety, is only evidence of the argument. According to Downfall, Boeing lost its safety-first attitude after its takeover by a McDonnel Douglas executive.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which may have fallen down on the job in the lead-up to Boeing’s 737 MAX crisis, seems eager to revive its watchdog role. The aviation industry realizes that now is not the time to complain about inspections and safety restrictions imposed by the FAA. Better to rise up to the public’s safety expectations, as unrealistic as they may be, and then continue bragging about being the safest form of travel. Safer than self-driving cars, anyway.