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Self-driving cars can save thousands of lives — even if they're not perfect, study says

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Google self-driving cars are shown outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., in May 2014.

Replacing human drivers with robots holds the potential to dramatically reduce deaths, but there’s a problem: Most people don’t trust them.

We hear about traffic crashes every day. They kill about 40,000 people every year in the United States, 260 of them in the city of Los Angeles. Distracted driving, drunk or drugged driving, speeding or some other human error is almost always to blame.

That's why state and federal governments are embracing self-driving cars as a potential solution. Replacing human drivers with robots holds the potential to dramatically reduce deaths, but there’s a problem. Most people don’t trust them.

"We understand the reasons that people make mistakes, whereas it’s harder to understand why machines make mistakes and that can shape our ability to accept mistakes," said Nidhi Kalra, co-author of a new study published today by the public policy think tank, the RAND Corporation. It’s called “The Enemy of the Good: Estimating the Cost of Waiting for Nearly Perfect Autonomous Vehicles.”

According the study, allowing the widespread use of autonomous vehicles, or AVs, when they’re only 10 percent better than the average American driver could prevent thousands of road deaths over the next 15 years and maybe even hundreds of thousands of deaths over the next three decades compared with waiting for self-driving technology to be perfect.

"As a society, we have come to see automation in almost all walks of life and …  it is quite logical to assume that a greater and greater fraction of the control and the driving of a car will be taken over by machines," said Dr. Venkat Sumantran, author of "Faster, Smarter, Greener: The Future of the Car and Urban Mobility." "It is impractical to wait or subject any technology to the test of being perfect to be usable."

Convincing the public of AVs' safety remains an issue, however. Three out of four Americans are afraid to ride in a car without a human driver, according to the American Automobile Assn.

But it’s coming. And probably a lot sooner than many people realize.

As early as March 2018, California will allow fully driverless cars on public roads. Not only for testing, but for individuals to lease, buy or hire a ride-hail service without a human behind the wheel, depending on what companies make available.

If that seems sudden, it’s been a long time coming. California started working on regulations for self-driving vehicles back in 2013. When the regulations took effect in September 2014, California had seven companies that were approved. The following year the state had 11 companies. Today,  43 companies are approved for testing  in the state, according to Bernard Soriano, deputy director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Currently, self-driving cars in California must have a safety driver present in the vehicle. Companies that are approved for testing in the state also need to report any crashes. To date, there have been 49 crashes involving self-driving cars, which probably sounds like a lot, but Soriano said, "By and large, those crashes have been very minor. A typical scenario is an AV approaching an intersection and the vehicle behind the AV colliding with the AV at very low speeds, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 to 5 mph."

Most of the California AV crashes have taken place in the bay area, where the bulk of the state’s AV testing is happening.

There is no AV testing in Los Angeles currently, says Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer for the LA Department of transportation.

In February the city conducted a test of a semi-automated microtransit bus on a closed course in downtown LA, and they’re looking to do more testing.

"We are interested in continuing to learn and determine a path for deployment of AV here in the city of Los Angeles," Porras said.

And doing so safely.

"We’re trying to provide some hard numbers. We shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good when it comes to savings people’s lives," said Rand researcher Nidhi Kalra.

So how perfect are self-driving cars right now? According to Kalra, "They might be safer in some circumstances. A sunny day on a well marked highway with low traffic. But maybe in a complex situation with heavy rainfall, complex driving routes and detours, this might be more challenging. Really the jury’s still out on whether we’ve reached that threshold of being better than the average driver."

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