Saving lives is top AV prize
We’ve all heard the number repeatedly—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that human error is a contributing factor in 94% of U.S. crashes. The landmark National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, conducted from 2005 to 2007, collected on-scene information about the events and associated factors leading up to crashes involving light vehicles. The critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94% of the crashes. Among the drivers who were assigned critical reasons, recognition errors accounted for about 41%, decision errors 33%, and performance errors 11% of the crashes.
The result is tragic, with 37,133 people losing their lives in U.S. motor vehicle crashes in 2017. With these numbers as a backdrop, in October NHTSA announced that 2017 U.S. highway fatality numbers were down following two consecutive years of large increases, and preliminary estimates for the first 6 months of 2018 appear to show that this downward trend continues.
However, a new World Health Organization report released in December says that road traffic deaths continue to rise globally, with an annual 1.35 million fatalities. The big eye-opener in the Global status report on road safety 2018 is that road traffic injuries are now the leading killer of people aged 5-29 years.
Despite an increase in the overall number of deaths, the rates of death relative to world population have stabilized in recent years, suggesting that existing road safety efforts in some middle- and high-income countries have helped the situation. Where progress has been made, the report says it is largely attributed to better legislation around key risks such as speeding, drinking and driving, and failing to use seat-belts, motorcycle helmets, and child restraints; safer infrastructure like sidewalks and dedicated lanes for cyclists and motorcyclists; enhanced post-crash measures; and implementation of more technology and stringent vehicle regulations related to more-autonomous technologies such as electronic stability control and automatic emergency braking.
While these measures have contributed to reductions in road traffic deaths in 48 middle- and high-income countries, not a single low-income country has demonstrated a reduction in overall deaths—in large part because these measures are lacking. The risk of a road traffic death remains three times higher in low-income countries than in high-income countries. The rates are highest in Africa (26.6 per 100,000 population) and lowest in Europe (9.3 per 100,000 population). On the other hand, since the previous edition of the report, three regions of the world have reported a decline in road traffic death rates: Americas, Europe and the Western Pacific.
Globally, pedestrians and cyclists account for 26% of all road traffic deaths, with that figure as high as 44% in Africa and 36% in the Eastern Mediterranean. Motorcycle riders and passengers account for 28% of all road traffic deaths, but the proportion is higher in some regions, e.g. 43% in South-East Asia and 36% in the Western Pacific.
These deaths are an unacceptable price to pay for mobility. Even partial implementations of autonomous vehicle technology have the potential to save many lives.
According to a Rand Corp. report from late 2017, allowing wide use of autonomous vehicles when they are just 10% better than current American drivers could prevent thousands of road fatalities over the next 15 years and possibly hundreds of thousands of fatalities over 30 years, researchers found, compared to waiting until they are 75% or 90% better.
“Our work suggests that it is sensible to allow autonomous vehicles on America's roads when they are judged to be just moderately safer than having a person behind the wheel,” said Nidhi Kalra, co-author of the study and director of Rand’s San Francisco office. “If we wait until these vehicles are nearly perfect, our research suggests the cost will be many thousands of needless vehicle crash deaths caused by human mistakes. It's the very definition of perfect being the enemy of good.”
The autonomous vehicle technology race is on, and the sooner it gains momentum, the more lives we can save. And it is important that the benefits reach the entire world’s population, especially in low-income countries where traffic fatality numbers are highest.