With a still-expanding job base, lower gas prices and increasing vehicle miles, the big strides in reducing auto fatalities in the US are reversing. After a high of 43,500 fatalities in 2005, the number dropped over the next five years to about 32,500. Then progress in fatality reduction ended, followed by 9% increases in 2015 and the first half of 2016.
Europe has experienced a similar flattening of the progress in reducing vehicle fatalities, and saw a level 26,000 vehicle deaths in 2013-2015. The EU’s goal of cutting vehicle-related deaths by half from 31,500 to about 16,000 in this decade looks to be in jeopardy.
While government transport agencies will continue to use design, enforcement and education to reduce fatalities, the trends may indicate that auto safety features and government initiatives have gone about as far as possible in fatality reduction. Enter new vehicle technology.
Connected vehicle technology, whether cellular or dedicated short-range communications, promises in-vehicle warnings to alert drivers to accident situations, such as dangerous traffic slowdowns. While connected vehicle technology will forge ahead, the big safety variable – the human driver –remains the limiting factor in this approach. With human error accounting for up to 90% of all vehicular accidents, the big game changer to reach the goal of zero fatalities is fully automated driving. And not some intermediate level of autonomy that requires re-engagement of the driver at a moment’s notice, but full driverless operation on motorways, urban streets, and eventually everywhere.
No technological leap outside of medicine has the potential to improve world safety like automated vehicles. Worldwide, there are currently 1.25 million road deaths a year, the ninth leading cause of death, and the only top 10 cause not related to human health.
Governments should focus initially on ‘robo-taxis’ rather than driverless private cars – that’s where the biggest benefits lie. Autonomous taxis are being tested on public roads with a human monitor: Uber and nuTonomy are doing this on the roads of Pittsburgh and Singapore, respectively. Eventually these companies intend to make the jump to fully driverless taxis, with no human monitor. Governments around the world must be proactive in guiding these advances. As driverless vehicles interact with human-operated vehicles, accidents will occur.
On September 20, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration became the first agency anywhere to issue guidelines for what NHTSA terms Highly Automated Vehicles (HAV). While the guidance is only a voluntary process for vehicle makers to provide systems and operational data, NHTSA has created the first framework anywhere for testing and market introduction of HAVs, including SAE Level 5 driverless vehicles. The debate regarding self-certification versus government certification has yet to begin, but the NHTSA guidance is a big step in getting HAVs on the road to eliminate highway deaths. A positive next step would be for NHTSA to adopt a high level of transparency in data sharing, ensuring that the public can begin to make its own conclusions about the efficacy of HAVs.