Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Road to Driverless Cars -- Safety Systems

One unique characteristic of autonomous vehicles is their potential to be safer than the mode they replace.

Cars today are safer than ever, but their use still results in over 35,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. Safety systems are now becoming available with the potential to mitigate the results of driver error, and avoid some accidents entirely. Advanced safety systems - lane departure warnings, collisions alerts, even direct accident avoidance - are finding their way into an increasing number of luxury and even mid-price vehicles.

At this point most of these features are optional and rely on consumers to value them highly enough to pay more.This is reminiscent of the of the early stages of the process that saw the adoption of  passive safety systems such as airbags and ABS.

Consumer interest may lead to active safety features being adopted, perhaps more quickly than ABS and airbags, which had minimal adoption rates early in their introduction (even though they were technologically mature by the 70's). The willingness of consumers to buy, and manufacturers to provide safety features, has increased  over the last couple of decades as safety has become an important consideration when buying a vehicle.

The Insurance Industry was ultimately the driving force behind the near universal uptake of passive safety systems. Reluctance by manufacturers was only overcome by legislation mandating the deployment of the safety features, usually after intense lobbying by the insurance industry. The manufacturers main complaint, that such features would raise costs unbearably, was mitigated as large production runs reduced unit costs.

There is the possibility that active safety systems will be implemented more quickly than passive restraints were. The speed at which more active safety technologies are implemented, especially those that are capable of assuming complete control of the vehicle, is impossible to predict. But it is important to keep in mind that airbags and ant-lock brakes provided only marginal reductions in accident and injury rates. Active safety systems, on the other hand, have the potential to substantially reduce the number of casualties on the road. If that potential can be documented in the limited number of deployed systems the pressure to expand their use is likely to be significant. 

A truly active safety system, one that could steer and brake a vehicle in a dangerous situation, is likely to have an outsized impact attitudes towards such systems in general. If functional it would provide a constant stream of well documented examples of lives and limbs saved. A video or LIDAR track of the first pedestrian saved by a swerving (temporarily) computer controlled car, with a temporarily incapacitated driver behind the wheel, would be.... priceless.

Because there is on average a fatal accident one accident every 2,000,000 miles driven it is more likely than not we will see a an active safety system deal with a life or death situation after about one and a half million miles. This means that with a relatively small number of well equipped cars on the road (say around 50,000) we should see two or three such incidents a year. Even this small a number, because they will be so well documented, could have an outsized impact on public perception as well as policy.