After years of a steady decline, the number of roadway fatalities has begun rising. Per NHTSA, U.S. traffic deaths jumped an estimated 10% during the first half of 2016 compared to the year-ago period. A rising crash death toll is adding to the urgency to automate driving – to remove driver error from the equation.  

NHTSA estimates that 94% of all fatal crashes have an element of human error. Advances in vehicle technology must be part of the solution to eliminate or reduce the number of fatalities on our roadways.

The potential benefits of autonomous vehicles are immense – thousands of lives could be saved by preventing crashes caused by driver-related factors. Preventing alcohol-impaired driving, for example, would have saved nearly 7,000 lives in 2014 if all drivers had a blood alcohol concentration below 0.08 percent. Preventing run-off-road crashes would have saved more than 7,500 lives in 2014, while eliminating red-light running crashes would have spared more than 7,000 lives.

Some Advanced Drivers Assistance Systems (ADAS) are already available. If three currently-available technologies – forward collision warning/mitigation, lane departure warning/prevention and side view assist/blind spot monitoring – were deployed in all passenger vehicles, they could prevent or mitigate almost one quarter of all crashes. However, only 2% of 2013 model year cars included these systems as standard. While many of these technologies are available on higher value cars or as part of an upgraded technology package today, they are not standard equipment on all makes and models. Safety should not be just for those who can afford it, especially for technologies that will result in thousands of lives saved every year.

Some automation systems do not always perform as expected. The systems are immature and cannot improvise or adapt to normal changes in the driving environment like humans can. For example, cresting hills is a challenge for automated systems as the cameras that monitor lane markings point upward away from the pavement as cars make their ascent so they can’t “read” lane markings beyond the crest and can drift as the systems hunt for the lane. Moreover, experimental studies demonstrate that drivers can fail to notice when systems reach their limits and can have trouble retaking control of the vehicle, especially in emergency situations. Crash prevention systems and driver assistance need to be improved to address a bigger variety of crashes and crash conditions.

Autonomous vehicles may be the most significant technological development we’ll see in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, no governmental regulatory guidance is forthcoming; rather, NHTSA is issuing voluntary guidelines to the industry and to the states.  Accordingly, instead of providing manufacturers with one set of consistent, national regulations that prioritize safety and accountability, NHTSA’s guidelines will result in a patchwork of inconsistent state-by-state rules that will only create confusion, when clarity is badly needed.

Because there are no minimum standards for many of these technologies, legitimate questions about their effectiveness remain. The American consumer has a vital interest in the development of safe autonomous motor vehicles that “do no harm.” While the industry’s efforts to create or adopt new features to make driving safer should be applauded, a host of computer-aided technologies have been released without any government oversight or accountability, raising concerns.

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