One reason for the anticipation of autonomous vehicles

01 January 2020

A year ago, Waymo CEO John Krafcik told a crowd at the Wall Street Journal’s D.Live tech conference that it will be decades before fully autonomous vehicles are widespread. Even then, there will be serious constraints to the vehicles depending on certain conditions (rain, snow, construction, etc.). The same sentiment was echoed last month by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; a once vehement supporter of level 5 vehicles. What automakers and tech giants alike once promised to be zipping around without steering wheels by 2021 now seems like a pipedream to those on the outside.

One huge reason for the anticipation of autonomous vehicles is the promise that these AI-run vehicles will eventually be safer that a human driver. Widespread deployment of fully autonomous vehicles would, in theory, put a huge dent in the lives lost each year to traffic accidents. Potentially being the greatest public health success of our generation. From the beginning of the “autonocraze”, saving lives was the number one driver behind the lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Talking points emphasizing the importance of safety have echoed statements like “[1]Nearly 36,000 lives are lost on America’s roads each year, 95% of them due to human error” or “that is the equivalent of a 747 full of passengers going down each week.”

With the myriad of technologies being developed constantly, there exists technologies that can help save lives today and put a stop to the thousands of lives lost each year.

Distracted Driving Accounts for 4,000 Deaths Each Year

[2]According to the Center for Disease Control, more teenagers die in automobile accidents than any other cause. In fact, 62% of all accidental deaths among 10-19 year olds are due to car accidents. These are some extremely disturbing statistics. Even more disturbing is the fact that 39% of teens have ridden with a teen driver who was texting and driving and 95% believe other teens have ridden with a friend who was texting while driving. These are highly preventable deaths. New advanced driver monitoring technologies are being deployed, although only in select premium models, that can do exactly that. High resolution cameras and computer vision algorithms are being used to track a driver’s head pose, where they are looking, whether their hands are on or off the wheel, and even how much they close their eyelids in order to measure alertness. These applications can provide life-saving data to the vehicle, warning alerts to the driver, or in the case of Volvo, a call to the driver to check their cognitive state, preventing a potential tragedy. As of yet, the United States has not mandated that any distracted driving detection systems be standard. However, cars sold in the European Union from 2022 onwards will be required to be fitted with a range of new safety systems as standard practice, including cameras that can detect driver drowsiness and attention.

Child Heatstroke

[3]The number of child casualties as a result of heatstroke in 2019 reached a record high of 51 children, undoubtedly a heartbreaking issue and potentially the most preventable. While safety advocates have tirelessly lobbied for regulatory framework mandating that automakers include technology to prevent these tragic events, proposed bills such as the HOT CARS Act of 2019 have gotten held up due to the lack of understanding of exactly what kind of technology should be mandated. Luckily, there are no less than a dozen companies that can provide a solution to prevent hot car deaths with or without a regulatory requirement. This past September on Capitol Hill, a group of these companies demonstrated their solutions to Congress along with several families who had lost children to hot car death who told their heartbreaking stories, all in an effort to push forward this important Act. Time will tell if this emotional demonstration will move the needle. Either way, another summer has passed without a HOT CARS bill being passed and the question remains if yet another summer will pass without a solution mandated. A group of automakers have pledged to include these technologies in their vehicles but several groups are skeptical that it will come to fruition.

While serious questions still remain about how these technologies will be implemented or regulated, it has not stopped companies from constantly innovating new solutions that can save lives. Many automakers have begun to take it upon themselves to include new safety systems such as forgotten infant alerts or driver monitoring systems. However, these are only in a select number of models today. Additionally, cars built today are on the road for an average  of 10 years so it may take up to a decade to start feeling the effects of these new technologies. Safety should not be synonymous with cost and it is imperative that these benefits are available to all consumers on the road, as quickly as possible.

[1] https://www.nhtsa.gov/traffic-deaths-2018

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/teen_drivers/index.html

[3] https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/motor-vehicle-safety-issues/hotcars/