I have recently been thinking on the improvements to safety when self driving cars become popular and well used. People generally accept that (given time) these cars are going to be safer than human driven cars because they won't get distracted. The worry is that you won't see road safety figures improve until the majority of journeys made by car are using autonomous vehicles.
I suspect that we will actually see improvements much sooner than this due to a heard effect. Currently I have heard from many people that break the speed limit that 'it is safer that way because everyone does it'. This then leads to further bad behaviour from other drivers. A similar effect happens with stopping distances and changing lanes in heavy traffic. "Everyone else does it so why shouldn't I" becomes the mentality.
My hypothesis is based on the idea that autonomous vehicles will be driving at or below the speed limit and will drive considerately (leaving room in front and not pulling out in front of other vehicles). As the number of vehicles driving considerately increases and becomes the norm, this will encourage other drivers (not all) to do similar and road safety should improve even with non autonomous vehicles.
This does of course work only if autonomous vehicles are seen as part of the heard.
If (as I have head suggested in some places) they are marked out as different (for example using a different colour of number plate). In this case there is a risk that drivers will simply consider the autonomous vehicles as an other species and ignore them. Worse, they may freely cut up these vehicles safe in the knowledge that it is a computer with faster reactions and is not going to get pissed off and do something stupid like take revenge.
I would be really curious to see some experiments around this idea.Go Top