How Much Will a Fatal Accident Set Back Self-Driving Cars?

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As self-driving car tests move from closed tracks to the open road and commercialization of the vehicles begins, one thing is certain. There is bound to be a fatal accident.

Over 40,000 people were killed in car accidents in 2016. Open roads offer too many hazards for that figure to be close to zero. Self-driving cars may cut out some of the major problems, particularly drunk driving and people who get sleepy at the wheel. However, accidents also are caused by careless pedestrians, bad weather and drivers who crash their cars in ways that affect other vehicles. The idea that self-driving cars will eliminate all accidents is fanciful.

Self-driving cars already have been involved in accidents. These include vehicles operated by Alphabet Inc.’s (NASDAQ: GOOGL) Waymo, a Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) operated vehicle, and cars from Tesla Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA) and General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM). The National Transportation Safety Board released a report last September that said a Tesla system was in part responsible for a fatal accident. Tesla challenged the finding. The decision will remain the topic of debate, but it leaves open the question of whether a self-driving car accident already has been fatal.

One fact from a recent Pew study is that a number of Americans are anxious about the emerging technology. Likely, a fatal crash, which would be widely reported because of the attention self-driving cars have received, would push anxiety and challenge demand. Pew reported:

Comparable shares of Americans describe themselves as being “very enthusiastic” (11%) and “very worried” (14%) about the development of driverless vehicles, but twice as many describe themselves as being “not at all” enthusiastic (22%) as opposed to not at all worried (11%).

Part of the marketing effort of all self-driving car companies is that their vehicles will be safer than those operated by humans. That may be true. However, a fatal accident could jar the public’s belief in that claim. And self-driving car demand will be affected.