Death by driverless car

Image is taken from

There’s a Wikipedia page devoted to Bridget Driscoll. You could be forgiven for not knowing her name but she’s gone down in history as possibly the first person to have been killed in a car accident. She’s certainly the first known UK pedestrian to have been fatally injured by a car. It happened at the Crystal Palace in London on 17 August 1896 and the car may have been going as fast a 13km/h, might have been going as fast as a good horse could gallop (according to one witness), or might have been incapable of going any faster than 7.2km/h.

Whatever the truth, an inquest was held and the coroner declared the hope that such a thing would never happen again. One could be forgiven a hollow laugh upon reading that.

Driverless cars, we are told, are one of the technologies of the future. So the obvious question is, are they safe?

In answer to that, to date (1 January 2019) there have been four known deaths caused by driverless cars. One could technically be more accurate and say that in each case a driver was in the vehicle but in each case it’s understood that the car was driving itself.

These deaths were:

  • Gao Yaning, aged 23, in Hebei, China, on 20 January 2016. Gao was in a Tesla Model S and hit the back of a truck that was partly off the road but still blocking half the lane. Tesla said that data was destroyed in the accident and there is no way of knowing if Autopilot mode was engaged but the video of the collision doesn’t really leave much room for doubt.
  • Joshua Brown, aged 40, in Florida, USA, on 7 May 2016. Brown was in a Tesla Model S and watching a video when the car apparently didn’t pick out the white side of a turning tractor-trailer against the brightly lit sky. His car hit the trailer without slowing down.
  • Elaine Herzberg, aged 49, in Tempe, Arizona, USA, on 18 March 2018. Herzberg is the only pedestrian killed to date and the accident may have been unavoidable. She was walking a bicycle across a badly lit road at night when a self-driving Uber struck her.
  • Walter Huang, aged 38, in Mountain View, California, USA, on 23 March 2018. Huang was in a Tesla X that hit a highway barrier at high speed and then caught fire. He had previously complained about the autopilot malfunctioning. Tesla said that there had been warnings given by the car for six seconds before the collision but Huang had not reacted.

So the question remains, are driverless cars safe?

Counter-intuitively, the answer to that question is probably “not completely,” but also that they’re safer than other cars.

Fatal accidents notwithstanding, and there have been some serious non-fatal accidents as well, technology is improving all the time. It’s at this point that we have to remember that as long as there are cars, there’ll be accidents.

Bleak as it may sound, large construction projects tend to have acceptable accident rates – a quantified measure of how many worker deaths are acceptable during construction.

Similarly, it is accepted that road safety campaigns will not eliminate fatalities altogether. The aim is merely to reduce them.

With driverless cars, in all probability the road death toll will increase in future as more and more cars are driverless. However the death toll per number of kilometres driven, will probably be lower. In other words, they’ll be statistically safer.

Given all that, would I get in one myself? Not a chance. Or at least, not yet.

References (all accessed 1 January 2019):





The Melancholy Roman