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Test-driving autonomous vehicles for safety is not practical

Autonomous Google Prius
Rand Corporation says autonomous vehicles would need to be test-driven hundreds of millions of miles to determine reliability and safety. Clearly, that’s not possible, and even if it was, would not conclusively prove safety. Thus, alternative methods need to be created and regulations for autonomous vehicles should be flexible and adaptive.

Under even aggressive testing assumptions, existing fleets would take tens and sometimes hundreds of years to drive these miles — an impossible proposition if the aim is to demonstrate performance prior to releasing them for consumer use. Our findings demonstrate that developers of this technology and third-party testers cannot simply drive their way to safety. Instead, they will need to develop innovative methods of demonstrating safety and reliability. And yet, it may still not be possible to establish with certainty the safety of autonomous vehicles. Therefore, it is imperative that autonomous vehicle regulations are adaptive — designed from the outset to evolve with the technology so that society can better harness the benefits and manage the risks of these rapidly evolving and potentially transformative technologies.

Even a million miles of test-driving is nowhere near enough

“The most autonomous miles any developer has logged are about 1.3 million, and that took several years. This is important data, but it does not come close to the level of driving that is needed to calculate safety rates,” said Susan M. Paddock, co-author of the study and senior statistician at RAND. “Even if autonomous vehicle fleets are driven 10 million miles, one still would not be able to draw statistical conclusions about safety and reliability.”

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