Are too many drivers asleep at the wheel?

I recently returned from the April 13 World Traffic Safety Symposium at the New York International Automobile Show, a discussion about The Future of Automotive Mobility — Autonomous Vehicle Safety.

The momentum toward more- and fully autonomous cars is inevitable, and safety is the justification. The “how to” deserves a look. The grim statistics are not numbers; those numbers are people. 

There are some wonderful systems being introduced out there for which the whole economy and legal system will have to adjust, including the thought process behind them. The conference speakers didn’t come right out and say it, but some folks there were of the mind that driving is just too dangerous to allow anyone to do. The thinking is that at all drivers are inherently error prone; all are probable, if not inevitable, crashers.

This, though, might indicate that crashes happen not just because we drive, but rather because of how we drive. Most drivers have the impression that their own driving would never be at fault: delusions of adequacy? 

Each of us passed about the same test during our high school years in order to obtain a driver’s license. Preparing for and taking the DMV test is not a crash deterrent, and the ease of this process could actually be considered a “crash enabler.” 

As it is, licensing does not prevent the carnage to which we have become accustomed. Crashes are the leading cause of violent injury and fatality on the planet, not to mention the financial impacts that are their result.

Computer engineers are clever and intelligent. Can they project and determine all situations of projectile trajectory in an infinitely variable traffic environment? And why do commercial airliners still have pilots and co-pilots? The plane does not have the immediate “proximity to hazard” that the car does … “all of a sudden!” (‘Sully’ had 17 seconds to avert an airliner tragedy.)

Will the tech capacities apply on country and dirt roads where urban algorithms might not?

Also, if 94 percent of crashes are caused by driver error, isn’t that where the most improvement should come?

The U.S. is near to last among the 10 or so economically developed countries in reducing the crash rates over the last 10 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s publication, Vital Signs. Those other countries’ improvements have come from social and cultural improvements in behavior: training, evaluation, improving the driver’s awareness, consciousness and ability. This would have to be developed “one mind at a time.” (In the U.S., the costs and inconvenience of training and evaluation improvements likely outweigh the political value.) Certainly the crash preventive tech features in cars help, but why the disparities from country to country? 

The passengers in a commercial airliner are helpless in the event of a problem, somewhat like the passengers on the Titanic. The car is not like a train or elevator. There is no problem-solving readiness for folks in a fully autonomous vehicle, a certain crash in the event of tech glitch, failure or hack. 

Should we unload the necessity of the driver’s consciousness? What if there were dozens, hundreds or thousands of cars operating on a system that failed or was hacked? Predictably, immediate mayhem.

Just thinking. 


Bob Green is the director of Survive the Drive, a not-for-profit educational and training resource.  See www.survivethedrive.org or call him at 860-435-1054.