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Communications of the ACM


Autonomous Vehicle Safety: Lessons from Aviation

woman lounging in autonomous vehicle, illustration

Credit: Scharfsinn

Autonomous vehicles seem to hold great promise for relieving humans of the boring task of guiding a car through congested traffic or along a monotonous turnpike, while at the same time reducing the annual highway death toll. However, the headlong rush to be the first to market, without adequate considerations of life-critical control system design, could cause irreparable public harm and ultimately set back the promise of autonomous driving. With the current goal of being at least as safe as human driving, espoused by business leaders as well as some regulatory agencies, the annual death toll attributed to automation killing innocent people, just in the U.S., would be approximately 36,500 per year or 100 per day. Think about that for a minute!

This column highlights this important dependability need, the dire consequences of falling short, and how leveraging the knowledge gained by the aviation industry in operating safety-critical flight control systems without fatalities for over a quarter century can help avoid this outcome.


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