It may seem like science fiction, but self-driving cars are already on the road. We will likely see an increase in driverless vehicles in the years to come, as technology and government regulations merge to create roadway systems that allow for this new type of transportation. However, you may be asking yourself: how safe are self-driving cars? Let’s explore that question and discuss all the ways that self-driving technology has already been used safely.

Background on autonomous cars


At this time, all vehicles still require a driver. So, what does this mean? If you drive a newer vehicle you likely already utilize some form of self-driving technology. There are six levels of automated driving:

Level Zero

At level zero, your car may have blind spot alerts or lane departure warnings. The vehicle can only inform the driver of possible danger; it’s up to the driver to avoid the hazards.

Level One

At level one, your vehicle can intervene slightly. An example would be a lane steering system that helps keep your car centered if the sensor feels the vehicle drifting.

Level Two

Vehicles in the level two category have features that can communicate with each other and work simultaneously. An example of this is adaptive cruise control that can control the speed and placement of your vehicle without driver intervention. This is currently the most intelligent automated vehicle technology sold commercially in the US.

Level Three

Level three vehicles can drive themselves under some conditions with driver supervision. An example of this is a vehicle that allows the driver to stop driving during a traffic jam and will enable the car to take over but continue driving the car once the traffic clears. The Honda 100 Legend Flagship car is the only level three car currently on the market, and it is only sold in Japan.

Level Four

At Level four, the vehicle can drive itself on a fixed route on known roads. Some of these vehicles do not even have a steering wheel or pedals, so no driver intervention is needed. These vehicles are primarily being tested for drive share programs; none are approved for general use.

Level Five

Level five vehicles are the final step in self-driving vehicles. They can drive anywhere under any conditions and require no driver intervention. Currently, level five vehicles are only hypothetical.

We haven’t made it to level five yet, but it’s certainly on the way. Will completely autonomous vehicles cut down on car accidents? According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, autonomous vehicles might prevent only around a third of all crashes if automated systems drive too much like people. Of course, there are many factors that will go into the safety precautions of fully automated vehicles. Many major car manufacturers are very interested in self-driving technology. Vehicles will have to meet manufacturer safety standards, as well as US safety standards, before they are put on the market.

Will self-driving cars be safer?

According to popular belief, self-driving cars will one day render car accidents obsolete. That is not the case in reality. Driver mistakes lead to more than 9 out of 10 crashes, according to a national assessment of police-reported crashes. However, according to the findings of the Institute for Highway Safety, roughly a third of those collisions were caused by errors that automated vehicles would be expected to avoid simply because they have better perception than human drivers and aren’t susceptible to distraction and incapacitation. They’d have to be properly trained to put safety over speed and convenience to prevent the remaining two-thirds.

“Building self-driving cars that drive as well as people do is a big challenge in itself,” says IIHS Research Scientist Alexandra Mueller, lead author of the study. “But they’d actually need to be better than that to deliver on the promises we’ve all heard.”

In other words, we don’t know yet if self-driving cars will be safer. Only time and technology will be able to tell us if crashes will one day be a thing of the past. However, there are many benefits that self-driving cars provide that go beyond safety.

Beyond safety: other possible benefits of automation

Like we said, many vehicles are already reaping the benefits of self-driving technology. Here are some other benefits of automation you may not have thought about:


Trying to find a parking spot in a busy city can be frustrating. In the future, self-driving vehicles will be able to drop passengers off and continue looking for parking on their own. Self-driving ride share services wouldn’t need to worry about parking at all, allowing cities to get rid of giant parking lots and simply designate drop off and pick up areas. Again, we have not reached the level in which driver interference is not necessary. But as the technology continues to evolve, we could see much easier trips to busy destinations.

An easier daily commute

Autonomous vehicles will substantially enhance regular commutes once we reach a point where human assistance behind the wheel is no longer required. Imagine being able to stretch out in the back instead of sitting behind the wheel, getting ahead on some work, or simply relaxing and catching up on your latest Netflix obsession. When you consider that Americans spend 19 full working days a year stuck in traffic on their way to work, that’s a significant amount of time commuters will be able to reclaim.

Cutting down on emissions

We could see a significant drop in emissions in the future, with the bulk of self-driving vehicles being electric or hybrid, and since autonomous vehicles drive more efficiently than people, at least, that’s the hope. According to research conducted by the University of California, automated vehicles might reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% by 2050 – but only if the vehicles are electric and shared. If we don’t make the move to more shared automobiles, the alarming projection is that emissions will rise (by as much as 50 percent by 2050, according to the same study).

Less air travel

Volvo’s 360c concept car, which debuted in 2018, shows a future in which self-driving cars are more than just transportation; they’re also spaces to work, sleep, and rest. It’s like a cross between a hotel room and a plane’s first-class cabin. Volvo envisions a luxurious, self-driving future in which a car picks you up and drives you anywhere you need to go, potentially eliminating the need for short-haul, domestic air travel. You would be able to order a car, pre-order food and drink, and then recline and relax in the rear while the car transported you to your destination, according to Volvo’s design.

New challenges to consider and dangers to anticipate

As with any new technology, there are risks and benefits to self-driving cars. Luckily, there are ways to prepare so that you keep yourself and other drivers safe as our roads begin to see an influx of autonomous vehicles.

Road accidents

As people become more comfortable with self-driving technology, they may become too reliant. This could lead to accidents, as drivers feel they don’t need to pay close attention to the road. The truth is, the technology and our roads are not ready for a fully autonomous experience. There are five categories of crash causes: sensing and perceiving errors, predicting errors, planning and deciding errors, execution and performance errors, and incapacitation. Being a defensive driver is more important than ever.

Technology malfunctioning

In real-world driving, automobiles equipped with active driving assistance systems suffered some form of malfunction every eight miles, according to a 2020 AAA research study. They also discovered that active driving assistance systems, which integrate vehicle acceleration, braking, and steering, frequently disconnect without warning, requiring the driver to retake control right away. It’s simple to understand how this situation could end badly if the driver is even briefly distracted or relies too heavily on the system’s skills. The Lithium-Ion (LI) batteries used in newer cars are notorious for being highly flammable. When lithium burns, it produces a metal fire that reaches temperatures of 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius). Using water to put out the fire could result in a hydrogen gas explosion.

Lack of regulations

Automakers, industry advocacy groups, and companies are lobbying Congress to pass legislation that will allow for “a broader deployment of autonomous vehicles,” as well as “rigorous safety criteria” for the new technology. There is now some regulation governing self-driving vehicles, and the number of states exploring legislation governing autonomous vehicles is constantly increasing. On that front, though, there is still a long way to go. Meanwhile, automakers, including Tesla, are free to bring their self-driving cars to market with little regulation. Now more than ever, drivers should stick to rules of the road and heed speed limits so we all stay safe.

The increasing amount of vehicles with varying levels of automation and driver assistance tech present new challenges for law enforcement, first responders, and the traffic safety community. There is still so much to navigate when it comes to safety protocols. Right now, the results are inconclusive about whether self-driving cars will be safer or not. There are arguments on both sides. But no matter what the future holds, at Elephant Insurance, we have your back. Get a quote today, and get ready for what tomorrow will bring.

Article last updated on June 25th, 2023 at 7:20 pm

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