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Driverless Cars in 2016: 7 Numbers Everyone Should Know

By Rich Smith - Jan 2, 2016 at 7:20AM

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Driverless cars are coming. Should you be afraid?

One of Google's more than four dozen driverless cars, currently roaming highways from California to Texas. Image source:

Here at The Motley Fool, we love numbers. Sales numbers and profit numbers mostly. But honestly, in the absence of those, we'll take whatever numbers we can get -- and crunch 'em.

For example, driverless cars are very much in the public eye, very much of interest to readers and investors alike. But until someone manages to sell one, sales and profit data are going to be hard to come by. So, lacking those, we've dug up a few other numbers for you to consider as we enter the new year.

Among them:

6 ... states
That's how many states (plus one district) are currently known to be letting driverless car companies conduct road tests in their states. Google has famously been testing driverless cars on the streets of Mountain View, Calif., for years. Californian law allows such tests, and the state is in the process of drafting more rules to regulate the industry. But that's just the start.

The Washington Post reports that in addition to California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and the District of Columbia have all passed similar legislation allowing driverless car testing. Additionally, states such as Virginia and Texas, which have not passed laws expressly allowing driverless cars on their roads, say that absent a law forbidding such testing, it's allowed.

25 ... mph
25 mph is the top speed that Google allows its driverless cars to go in road tests. Google keeps its cars going slow to limit the risk if something bad happens. As Google owner Alphabet (GOOG 2.36%) (GOOGL 2.39%) explained in a recent update on the project's progress, "slow speeds are generally safer (the kinetic energy of a vehicle moving at 35mph is twice that of one moving at 25mph)."

53 ... self-driving Google cars
That's how many driverless cars Google has tooling around the streets of Mountain View (and Austin, Texas) at the moment. 53 rolling roadblocks, ambling around at a snail's pace.

17 ... accidents
Perhaps not coincidentally, these slow-moving targets are getting hit a lot by lead-footed human drivers. Alphabet says its driverless cars have been in 17 accidents since 2009. Lately, as it's ramped up the testing, they've been getting hit at the rate of nearly once per month, with five accidents recorded from June to November. "Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident," says Alphabet. 

Three more numbers -- all in a rush
Whoever's at fault for the spate of accidents, though, expect to hear about more of them in the coming year. We make this prediction based on three final numbers as we head into 2016:

1.32 million: That's how many miles the Google Self-Driving Car fleet has logged over the past six years of testing.

2.97 trillion: This is how many miles the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Commission (FHC) says were driven by all U.S. drivers on all U.S. roadways in 2013.

4,066,000 traffic crashes involving property damage only: According to the most recent report we've seen out of the DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that's how many traffic accidents we saw over the course of 2.97 trillion miles driven in 2013. And juxtaposed with the FHC's data, it works out to about one fender-bender per 730,000 miles driven on U.S. roads.

What these last three numbers mean to you
In contrast, Google's 17 accidents over the course of 1.32 million miles driven in "autonomous mode" work out to an accident rate of just one accident per 77,647 miles driven. That's already an accident rate more than nine times more frequent than for the U.S. driving population at large. And it's getting worse.

According to Alphabet's own reports, the past six months saw Google Self-Driving cars log 309,417 miles of "autonomous mode" driving. The five accidents recorded in that time span work out to an accident rate of one fender-bender per 61,883 miles, or a 25% increase in the accident rate for these robo-cars.

What's more, Alphabet isn't the only company busy putting driverless cars on the road. In California alone, 11 separate companies have received permission to conduct their own tests -- from Bosch to BMW, Honda, Ford, and Volkswagen, too. And most of these companies have far less experience actually operating driverless cars than what Alphabet has amassed.

So, what's the moral of this story?

Human drivers beware. Keep a sharp lookout in 2016, because you never know: That put-putter put-putting up in front of you could actually be a driverless car.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 308 out of more than 75,000 rated members.

The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares). The Motley Fool recommends Ford. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors.Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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