Toyota’s James Kuffner, a safety expert proposing a radical goal-zero traffic deaths for the auto industry. Safety advocates concede that right now the target may be unattainable. But they say it is possible to virtually eliminate the 30,000-plus annual highway fatalities in the U.S.
Kuffne says that if the industry moves in a right way, within a decade “the probability of being killed in a traffic accident would be smaller than being killed by lightning.”
But automakers must speed the usual decades-long pace of adoption of new technology into vehicles as quick as possible. “The longer it isn’t deployed,” Kuffner says, “the more people die.” To reduce traffic death profound changes needed to vehicles, the way they operate and the way they’re regulated.
Since 2000, safety technology like lane departure warning, traffic jam assist, forward collision warning, rear cameras, adaptive cruise control etc. are introduced by many automakers. The challenge is to get the new technology into vehicles quickly but safely, says Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration . But the goal is sufficiently compelling to ensure that change will happen.
“Everyone’s got their own view of what the future is going to be,” Rosekind says. “We’re watching the future get created right in front of us.”
Vision Zero is a policy written into Swedish law in 1997, its core tenet is that there is no acceptable level of traffic fatalities; the goal is zero deaths. The policy fits Sweden’s only major automaker, Volvo, which has pledged that no one will die in an accident in a new Volvo car by 2020.
While other automakers are cautious about getting to zero — one executive marveled that Volvo’s lawyers would let the company make such a claim — isn’t backing off.
“By 2020, I think we have a good chance to be damn close to it,” says Volvo r&d chief Peter Mertens. Mertens also says it is possible to eliminate traffic deaths: “Once all vehicles are connected, then I think we can achieve zero fatalities in traffic.”
Volvo epitomizes one of two industry approaches to reducing fatalities — although they mostly differ in how quickly they propose to get to self-driving, connected vehicles.
Toyota’s Kuffner terms the two schools “guardian angel” and “chauffeur”:
- The “guardian angel” approach uses vehicles which are driven by humans, but with computerized safety systems ready to intervene. Automakers following this path say it probably will lead to fully autonomous vehicles, but improving crash avoidance and protection is more realistic in the near term.
- The chauffeur mode, championed by Google, uses self-driving vehicles. As Kuffner puts it, “the human doesn’t really have to participate. The car can drive itself.”
Chauffeur-mode backers question whether that is enough.
“Taking the driver out of the loop” is necessary, says Ron Medford, director of safety for Google’s self-driving car program. According to Medford, more than 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error and with impaired driving responsible for 25 percent.
“The idea of preventing a crash, not building a structure around you, should be the vision someday,” he says. In the short term, Medford adds, “it’s going to take both. You can’t really design crash protection sufficiently so that you won’t have any deaths.”