CES: Self-Driving Cars Will Inevitably Cause Deadly Crashes, Says Official

Courtesy of Toyota
Toyota's Gill Pratt

Fatalities are inevitable as autonomous cars are phased in, acknowledges Gill Pratt, the Toyota Research Institute's CEO.

From Ford to newcomer Faraday Future, car makers participating in this week's CES show are touting autonomous vehicles. But as fully self-driving cars become increasingly feasible and the industry invests billions in research to make them as foolproof as possible, fatalities caused by autonomous cars will still be inevitable. 

"Up to now, our industry has measured on-road reliability of autonomous vehicles in the millions of miles, which is impressive," said Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, a $1 billion research lab that, among its initiatives, aims to perfect a car that is incapable of causing a crash. "But to achieve full autonomy, we actually need reliability that is a million times better — we need trillion-mile reliability," Pratt said at a press conference Tuesday prior to the opening of CES. 

Even with that level of reliability, accidents caused by autonomous cars will occur.

"It's a very difficult issue," Pratt told The Hollywood Reporter. "On the one hand, you want to push the technology out, because overall the technology will save lives" — it's estimated that the 30,000 annual fatalities caused by car accidents in the U.S. would drop 90 percent if autonomous cars were widely adopted.

"But when the safety system is telling you do less and is taking over [driving] from you, it's a possibility that something may go wrong, too," Pratt said. "Part of what we as a society and we as an industry need to think about very thoroughly, if we manage to drastically lower the accident rate, is how are we going to handle those few cases where something will go wrong."

In the past, Pratt said, the assumption was that machines had to be perfect but humans could be fallible.

"In the future, as the machine does more and more of what the person does now, it will not be as perfect," he said. "We're going to try to make the machine as good as it can possibly be, but as part of this drastic reduction in fatalities and accidents there are still going to be some cases where the car had no choice, and it's important that we as a society comes to understand that."

"I would expect half of my budget is going to be spent on making these machines as reliable as possible and knowing where they might fail," said Pratt.