How Safe is Safe Enough? Are Our Expectations for Smart Cars Too High?


Sign with red circle and word 'trust' in the middle.
Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

One of the biggest controversies surrounding autonomous vehicle technology is their degree of safety. As the technology improves and looms larger on the horizon, the most common question that people have is - will they be safe?


In an article for The Wall Street Journal, Iyad Rahwan and Azim Shariff have turned that question on it's head, instead asking - how safe is safe enough?


The pair set out to answer this question by conducting a survey among Wall Street Journal readers, assessing what safety threshold autonomous vehicles would have to reach before consumers felt comfortable purchasing one. The results were surprising and slightly discouraging. Rahwan and Shariff found that the respondents to the survey have set the bar incredibly high, a fact which has serious impacts for the mass roll out of smart cars.


"We asked a representative group of Americans how much safer AVs [Autonomous Vehicles] would have to be, compared with human drivers, for them to be willing to ride in such cars. The results revealed that people's demands for safety are extremely - potentially unrealistically - high. If AVs were to eliminate 10% of today's accidents, thus being substantially safer than the average human, only 11% of people would be willing to adopt them. Even if AVs caused accidents at half the rate of human drivers, only 37% of Americans would opt in. To make matters worse, about 15% of people would need AVs to have a perfect safety record before they opt in."

The expectation that AVs be 100% safe before hitting the roads takes away from the fact that they are already pretty safe, and at least as safe as vehicles being manually operated on then road.


Rahwan and Shariff take some time to explore the possible explanations behind the expectations that consumers have developed over how safe AVs need to be before being fully deployed.


"First, there's overconfidence. Known in psychological literature as "illusory superiority" or the "better than average effect," the phenomenon is that people have an inflated perception of their own skills compared with others. Driving skill is literally the textbook example. Indeed, in our study, the majority of respondents thought if everyone drove as they did, 66% of accidents would be eliminated."

This is something that we, here at AlertDriving, cover in our own training material. When people think about 'bad drivers,' they rarely consider themselves, instead considering others to be bad drivers and to be responsible for collisions on the road. Of course, the reality is that many of us tend to exhibit small but dangerous driving behaviours when we are behind the wheel.


Another possible explanation is an aversion to algorithmic technology. This is a phenomenon that describes the aversion many have to using "superior but imperfect algorithms." The results of the study Rahwan and Shariff conducted reflect this, as a majority of respondents said they would feel safer with a human driver, say in an Uber or Lyft, then they would in an AV, despite the fact that apps like Uber and Lyft come with no guarantee that drivers are great drivers.


One final possible explanation, and one that is perhaps most pertinent to potential solutions to this problem, is what is called 'betrayal aversion' in psychology:


"When the primary function of a product is supposed to be safety, people are especially incensed when it causes harm."

Rahwan and Shariff point to this final explanation as potentially offering a solution for AV manufacturers, who could choose to emphasize other benefits of AV technology aside from mere safety, like the time that it can give back to those who commute every day to work.


The need to address the high standards consumers have for AV technology is clear. Rahwan and Shariff point out that autonomous technology has the potential, in the very near future, to save thousands of lives, even if imperfect in some ways. By holding AV manufacturers to an impossible standard, we risk losing out on the benefits that would come with early adoption of the technology.


Hopefully articles like this latest in The Wall Street Journal can help address the problem. Helpful too would be great public conversation about our expectations for AV technology as well as the myriad of benefits they have to offer.


For more on this topic, check out the original article in The Wall Street Journal by Iyad Rahwan and Azim Shariff.