If scientists developed a drug tomorrow that cured 90 percent of all cancer illnesses, would it be right to bring that medical innovation to market even as clinical trials continue? Consider that even what technically would be an “imperfect” cure could save half a million lives a year in the U.S. alone. How could anyone rationalize waiting years — and costing that many lives — to strive for a 100 percent success rate?
What if automakers developed driverless vehicle technology that reduced road fatalities by 90 percent? For perspective, the World Health Organization estimates 1.25 million people around the world die in car accidents annually. Would you want to wait for a “perfect” driverless system, or would you support the faster adoption of driverless cars and begin saving tens of thousands of lives as soon as possible?
While the cancer cure is still out of reach, driverless vehicles — and the potential to make our roads exponentially safer — are a reality. Yet this summer, several groups petitioned the Obama administration to stop what they characterized as “undue haste” by the Secretary of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief in getting driverless cars on the road. And aviation-safety experts quoted in the Wall Street Journal compared driverless car technology with airplane autopilot technology — even suggesting that motorists should undergo similar training until driverless technology is “perfect.”
In 1970, car accidents killed more than 50,000 Americans. In 2015, that total was a little more than 35,000 — a 30 percent reduction. Much of this decline came from the increased use of seatbelts, but even in 2006 more than 40,000 people died on U.S. roads. So what has changed since then? The implementation of autonomous safety features such as collision avoidance, automatic braking, and steering assist, which further remove human error from driving.
The rise of these digital technologies, particularly powerful but inexpensive sensors, now give us the opportunity to drastically reduce the fatality rate over the next decade. More than 80 percent of drivers are aware of semi-autonomous features, such as lane departure warning systems, in newer-model cars. And satisfaction among those who have used these features is above 90 percent, according to a soon-to-be-released report from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)TM.
While annual traffic fatalities are generally decreasing, this year’s data is a disturbing break in the trend. According to findings released by NHTSA and the Department of Transportation, traffic-related deaths are up 7.2 percent this year. The National Safety Council (NSC) attributes the jump in fatalities to an improving economy, lower unemployment, and lower gas prices. The combination of a weak economy and cheap gas leads to fewer people driving to work and fewer vacations. With even lower gas prices in the first half of the year, if the trend continues, the NSC predicts 2017 will be the deadliest driving year since 2007.
In an unprecedented move, NHTSA announced it will release accident data in hopes that tech companies — including the myriad of innovators involved in the driverless vehicle sector — will analyze it to understand the uptick. In addition to engaging the industry, the Obama administration is interested in “[accelerating] technologies that may make driving safe, including connected and highly automated vehicles.” This forward-thinking approach from the White House recognizes that “perfect” is an impossible expectation — but “very good” driverless technology will deliver safer roads, enable more efficient travel, and save lives.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles has proposed requiring car manufacturers to include pedals and steering wheels in driverless cars — limiting the ability of older and visually-impaired Californians to enjoy new-found freedom with driverless technology. This is a perfect example of premature regulatory action on what driverless vehicle manufactures can and cannot do. All California will achieve with its proposed regulation is limit the ability of manufacturers to find the best and safest technology.
As a society we’ve come to accept the needless tragedy of traffic fatalities as an inherent risk of driving or riding in cars. But the innovations behind driverless vehicle technology will deliver a paradigm shift in safety and mortality. Just imagine if, on your family’s next trip along the highway, the expectation that you will arrive safely at your destination improved by 90 percent.
With so many lives at stake, automakers, policy makers, and consumer safety groups must embrace the vision of driverless technology — and the radical safety benefits it brings — and work together to bring this technology swiftly and safely to market.