Are Self-Driving Cars Safe?

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Welcome to our new series on “The Future of Self-Driving Cars in South Carolina”. As we all know, new technologies disrupt our daily lives for better or worse. In the United States, commuters, city and town planners, legislators, manufacturers and even your local car accident attorneys are all bracing for the changes that driverless vehicles will have. There’s a share of optimism and skepticism around autonomous vehicle safety.

This first part of our series explores the history of the automobile and chronicles how vehicles have become progressively more automatic. But up to today, are self-driving cars actually safer?

The History of Manual-Driven Cars

German inventor Carl Benz first patented the motor vehicle in 1886. He is widely regarded as the inventor of the car, although many inventors and entrepreneurs developed engines and related concepts independently in the same period.

In 1893, the Duryea brothers unveiled the first gas-powered American vehicle in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The motor vehicle changes everything

In the following decades, the motor vehicle flourished in the United States and around the world. In its wake, it changed the American way of life. The booming motor vehicle industry saw Detroit become the fifth-largest city in the United States. Henry Ford created the first moving assembly line in 1913 to make vehicle production more efficient.

Today, there are 276 million vehicles in the United States. 91% of households have one.

Engineers and entrepreneurs are constantly looking for ways to improve the automobile. Self-driving cars may be the future.

While still in their infancy, vehicle manufacturers are investing millions of dollars in self-driving cars. How did driverless cars become the next big innovation?

History/Evolution of Self-Driving Cars

A vision is born

Concepts for self-driving cars were not far behind the development of the automobile itself. In 1939, General Motors presented a self-driving vehicle exhibit at the New York World’s Fair. At the time, there wasn’t even an interstate highway network. About 30,000 people each day crowded the exhibit, which was a detailed diorama of a futuristic city with self-driving cars. Industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes oversaw the exhibition.

The vision comes into focus

Over the decades, the vision of a self-driving car slowly came into focus. General Motors further developed the concept. In the 1950s, GM displayed a more detailed prototype, using sensors that responded to an electric current in the road. The current directed the vehicle to move. While seen as a major development in self-driving technology, it remained a concept showcase for the imaginations of the public, with technology to be improved upon in the future.

One step closer to reality

Of course, a vehicle that can move forward and negotiate turns is just the beginning. To be practical, a vehicle must control speed, watch out for pedestrians and respond to usual circumstances on the road. Electrical and computer engineering professor Robert Fenton pioneered these improvements in 1962. His version of the self-driving car had controls for speed, steering and braking.

While most improved on existing models, Fenton’s technology components filled most of the vehicle’s interior. Wires still had to be placed down the roadway to send signals to the vehicle. The challenge remained to create a self-driving vehicle that could safely navigate on existing roadways. Engineers in the United States and around the world would rise to the challenge in the 1960s and 1970s.

Self-driving vehicles develop around the world

In 1977, the Japanese presented a self-driving vehicle that used a camera system to relay and interpret road images. The vehicle had a top speed of 20 miles per hour. The Germans topped it in the 1980s, with a camera system that allowed for top speeds of up to 56 miles per hour.

Also in the 1980s, Carnegie Mellon University researchers, backed by the United States military, created a self-driving model using radar. The vehicle, called a Humvee, used sensors and computers instead of guide wires in the roadway. In the 1990s, developers experimented with magnetic stripes as an alternative to coils embedded in the roadway.

The United States committed public funds to the development of autonomous vehicles in 1991 when it passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, with the goal of producing a self-driving car and highway system. Carnegie Mellon researchers continued their work into the 1990s, presenting a vehicle with automated steering and human control of the throttle and brakes.

In the 2000s, development continued with U.S. government-funded efforts and prizes offered to private developers for completing autonomous driving challenges. As the 2000s progressed, these challenges moved from rural to urban environments.

Manufacturers and lawmakers alike began to proclaim that self-driving vehicles would soon take to the public roads – and even take them over. The end of the 2000s saw a new player enter the self-driving car race – technology powerhouse Google.

The future is born

Many leading auto manufacturers began test driving their self-driving cars in the 2010s. These models rely on cameras, radar and other technology. Though not yet publicly available, these vehicles automate most human functions of driving a car including speed monitoring, negotiating curves and collision avoidance. The driver does very little – they don’t need to touch the steering wheel or brakes.

While drivers wait for these vehicles to become fully available to the public, the technology they use has become increasingly available in driver technology. Lane assist, parallel parking and collision avoidance are just some of the technologies that drivers have available to them when they operate a vehicle.

Vehicles are quickly progressing through the levels of driving automation to require less attention and intervention from the vehicle operator. Manufacturers continue the arms race of developing self-driving cars, ready to usher in the future of transportation. State and federal laws scramble to keep up.

Today’s Self-Driving Technology

Today’s vehicles have varying levels of autonomy. Here are The Society of Automotive Engineers’ Levels of Vehicle Automation:

  • Level Zero – The driver is in full control of the vehicle. The driver is driving, and they must constantly pay attention, make decisions and complete tasks. There may be warnings and indicators to help them, but the driver is still in full control.
  • Level One – Steering and brake assists may help the driver. Examples are lane centering and adaptive cruise control. However, the driver is always in control of the vehicle, and they should be prepared to make decisions and override automated features.
  • Level Two – Multiple support systems may operate at the same time. Adaptive cruise control and lane centering may allow the driver to simply put their hands on the wheel and let the vehicle do the rest. However, the driver must continue to constantly supervise and be prepared to take control.
  • Level Three – In general, at level three, the vehicle can drive itself. It makes informed decisions based on the environment around it. The driver is not considered to be operating the vehicle. However, a driver must be seated in the driver’s seat. They must take control if the vehicle requests it.
  • Level Four – At level four, the vehicle can intervene in unexpected circumstances or even troubleshoot when its own system fails. The human doesn’t have to be ready to take control. There’s still an option for the human to override the automatic system.
  • Level Five – When a vehicle has level five automation, a human is not involved in any driving task. The vehicle doesn’t need a steering wheel or brakes for human operation. The vehicle can perform to the same level as though it had a capable human driver.

The most advanced autonomous vehicles are reaching Level 4 on the Society of Automotive Engineers’ scale. Vehicles are considered fully autonomous at Level 5. While some manufacturers are testing Level 5 vehicles, none are fully operational and available to the public. Even today, most vehicles that are available for public consumption with automated features remain at Level 2.

American Manufacturers and Self-Driving Technology

Ford Motor Company

Ford Motor Company is developing Level 3 and Level 4 self-driving vehicles with a focus on commercial use in ride-sharing and delivery services. They have partnered with Argo AI on the project. They have published A Matter of Trust 2.0 to address safety concerns and initiatives with their self-driving vehicles.

In vehicles commercially available today, Ford offers a range of technology at Level 2, marketed as Ford Co-Pilot360™. Perhaps the premier feature is Blue Cruise with adaptive cruise control, lane centering and speed limit recognition. The driver may operate hands-free while sensors ensure that they keep their eyes on the road.

General Motors

General Motors offers its hands-free driving system – Super Cruise™ – on select vehicle models. Equipped vehicles can complete lane changes and even pull trailers and campers while driving hands free. The driver must give attention to the operation of the vehicle and refrain from using devices while the vehicle is in motion. The General Motors Self-Driving Safety Report provides information on safety initiatives as the company continues to develop its vehicles.


Tesla touts that its vehicles come with the hardware necessary for fully-automated self-driving in the future. They say these features will continue to be developed and implemented over time.

Tesla’s current system – Autopilot – uses cameras with visibility in all directions. Autopilot suggests lane changes and assists with steering based on the route and intended destination. The company says its system can navigate increasingly complex spaces and scenarios.


Stellantis/Chrysler has Level 2 autonomous vehicles available to the public. Its suite of available driver assist technology in Chrysler vehicles includes Adaptive Cruise Control, lane-keeping systems, blind spot monitoring and parking assistance. Stellantis is continuing to develop Level 3 and Level 4 driverless operating systems, contributing to European development projects Hi-Drive and L3Pilot.


The Google self-driving car initiative is called Waymo. Since 2009, developers have focused on putting driverless vehicles on the roads. The technology relies on mapping an area before vehicle use, including available lanes, traffic control devices and pedestrian pathways. Then, the vehicle uses the gathered data along with its own sensors to operate the vehicle. Like other driverless vehicle systems, Lidar is a key component for gathering actionable information from the environment. A Waymo Safety Report is available online.

This is a summary of the self-driving vehicle development of some American companies. There are many car manufacturers in the United States and throughout the world. Many corporations and manufacturers are developing self-driving vehicles and autonomous driving technology.

Laws and Regulations are Developing Too

As vehicle manufacturers develop self-driving technology, the laws and regulations they operate under are also developing. Vehicle manufacturers General Motors and Ford have petitioned government regulators to allow self-driving vehicles – without human controls – to take to the roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has put the issue to public comment in the summer of 2022, with a statement that they will ensure safety is a priority as they make decisions.

Self-Driving Vehicle Safety

As autonomous vehicles continue to emerge, the safety of self-driving cars continues to be an important question. For vehicles of all types, traffic deaths increased in 2021 from 2020, about 10.5%. Is this statistic attributable to self-driving cars? What other variables may explain the increase in traffic deaths?

U.S. authorities say there have been about 400 crashes involving partially-automated vehicles. These crashes have resulted in fatalities. However, they say it’s hard to draw comparisons because there isn’t sufficient data to know how many vehicles each manufacturer has in operation. In addition, although crash statistics are known, it’s not known how many crashes these same technologies prevent. By their very design, automated vehicles reduce human error, a leading cause of crashes.

National Law Review reports that self-driving cars are more likely to be in accidents than human-operated vehicles. However, when accidents occur, overall injuries are less severe than in other crashes. They say self-driving cars crash on average 9.1 times per million miles driven, compared to 4.1 crashes per million miles for other cars.

The overriding question is whether taking human judgment and decision-making out of vehicle operation results in a safer and better transportation experience. As vehicle manufacturers scramble to answer that question in favor of self-driving, autonomous vehicles, lawmakers and policymakers grapple with how to regulate safety, traffic laws and law enforcement response to accidents involving these vehicles.

Self-Driving Vehicles and the Future

Self-driving cars were the dream of the early 20th century. As soon as inventors created the automobile, they began to imagine how they might function without human intervention. Today, engineers are closer than ever to answering that question – but to date, no fully automated vehicle is available for public consumption.

If you or a loved one has been injured in an accident with any level of car, David Aylor Law Offices is here to guide you through the process of receiving compensation. Our experienced legal team will be able to get you fair compensation for your injuries. Give us a call at 843-744-4444 for a free consultation today.

In the next part of our series, we’ll examine the laws and infrastructure that are being put in place for the oncoming future of self-driving cars. We’ll also go more in-depth about how driverless cars could impact you, the consumer, and all the people you share the road with. Stay tuned!

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