The Fuse

As Road Fatalities Soar, Feds Look to Eliminate Deadly Driving Through Autonomy

by Matt Piotrowski | October 06, 2016

NHTSA reported this week that traffic fatalities increased by 10 percent year-on-year throughout the first part of 2016.

“We have an immediate crisis on our hands, and we also have a long-term challenge,” Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said on Wednesday. He was referring to the sharp rise in traffic deaths that the country is currently experiencing. The statistics continue to be sobering: The government agency reported this week that traffic fatalities increased by 10 percent year-on-year throughout the first part of 2016.

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The number of deaths on American roadways is lower than the extraordinary high levels reached during the latter part of last decade, when fatalities over the first sixth months of 2006 rose beyond 20,000. Still, there is little room for complacency. The big rise in fatalities on American roads since 2014—with 2015 seeing the largest annual increase in almost half a century—are likely the result of two key trends. First, Americans are driving more, with low gasoline prices and stronger economic growth providing incentive for more trips by car. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) rose by 3.3 per cent for the first part of the year. Second, drivers have become increasingly distracted and less safe because they use gadgets such as smartphones while in the car.

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Autonomy to lead to greater safety, eventually

With these worrying developments in mind and Rosekind’s comment that the issue will have to be dealt with over the longer term, it’s fortunate that technology has emerged that is likely to make roads far safer in the long run. The penetration of autonomous vehicle technology has become crucial since vehicles won’t need someone at the wheel, a development that would improve safety since human error is responsible for roughly 94 percent of fatalities on the road. Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) President and CEO Robbie Diamond said: “The death toll is mounting on American roads, as today’s increasingly distracted motorists struggle to stay focused. Fortunately, the tech and automotive sectors are advancing technology that will take human error out of the equation entirely—the driverless car is approaching rapidly and we need a policy framework in place to support it. SAFE’s Autonomous Vehicles Initiative is working with both industry and government to try and create an innovation-first framework that creates a stable platform for industry without overreaching.”

The high number of deaths demonstrates the importance of autonomous driving features but also why they should be deployed with caution.

The high number of deaths demonstrates the importance of autonomous driving features but also why they should be deployed with caution. NHTSA has to walk a fine line with its regulation of the new technology. It doesn’t want to disrupt investment in the private sector, yet it needs to overlook the automotive and tech industries to make sure they roll out their products safely and gain the trust of the government and the public. Based on its policy guidance, announced last month, NHTSA showed that it will give auto and tech companies a lot of leeway to help them innovate. It looks to draw a line between national and state regulations, while also not requiring specific licenses or operators to be in fully autonomous vehicles. The guidance, furthermore, seeks to facilitate information-sharing among manufacturers and provides safety recommendations for manufacturers. The guidance from NHTSA was, for the most part, well received from the tech and auto industries, which have been scrambling at a fast pace to develop and test new autonomous features.

‘Zero deaths’

Full autonomy on the roads could virtually eliminate traffic accidents, but it’s uncertain when such a scenario will occur. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said that government officials are seeking “zero deaths” by 2046. Critics point to the fact that the Department of Transportation is looking to “drown out” negative publicity regarding this year’s unfortunate fatality numbers. The pace of adoption of autonomous vehicles—dependent upon a host of factors, including public acceptance and proper infrastructure—will determine whether this goal is ultimately achievable by then, or even sooner, but regulatory agencies like the DOT have a critical role to play in enabling the technology to flourish. An increasing number of vehicles already include automated features—which include adaptive cruise control and automatic braking—that allow them to operate with less human intervention. Paradoxically, in the short term, these driver assist technologies are contributing to the increase in distracted driving by requiring less attention from drivers on the road.

Full autonomy on the roads could virtually eliminate traffic accidents, but it’s uncertain when such a scenario will occur.

Technologists hope that innovation will soon outpace the negative impacts of driver-assist features that enable motorists to be less engaged. The most radical changes will include highway autopilot with lane-changing ability, long and short radar, and more complexity in GPS and mapping systems. Further in the future, cars will include handle autopilot in urban areas and will communicate with each other through sensors. In addition to radically improving traffic safety, autonomous vehicles bring about an opportunity to accelerate a transition to alternative fuels like electricity, a development that would significantly reduce the country’s dependence on oil.

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