It is essential that vehicles and infrastructure work together for autonomous vehicles.
It is essential that vehicles and infrastructure work together for autonomous vehicles.

Automated vehicles promise more safety by eliminating crashes linked to human error.

But claims that self-driving cars could avoid 90% of road deaths by eliminating these errors are untested, says a new report by the International Transport Forum.

Shared responsibility between robot and human drivers can, in fact, lead to more complex driving decisions.

The unintended consequences might make driving less safe, not more.

In situations where humans take over control from robots, more crashes might occur among "average" drivers who normally do not take risks.

Full automation may reduce the number of severe crashes significantly. Yet with partially automated systems, humans retain an advantage in many contexts. Overcoming this gap requires multiple sensors and connectivity with infrastructure.

Such fully automated and connected cars are vulnerable to cybersecurity risks, however.

"The avoidance of crashes should never depend on access to shared external communication channels alone", the report warns.

It recommends designing automated vehicles so that safety-critical systems are functionally independent and cannot fail in case of connectivity issues.

Automation makes it more urgent to adopt a Safe System approach to road transport. A Safe System organises all elements of road traffic in a way that when one safety mechanism fails, another steps in to prevent a crash, or at least serious injury.

Applying this approach to automated driving means the traffic system will account for machine errors.

The report cautions against using safety performance to market competing automated vehicles. "The relative safety level of vehicles … should not be a competition issue. The regulatory framework should ensure maximum achievable road safety, guaranteed by industry, as a precondition of allowing these vehicles … to operate," the report says.

Other recommendations in the report include a requirement for automated vehicles to report safety-relevant data, establish comprehensive cybersecurity principles for automated driving and provide clear, targeted messaging of vehicle capabilities.