The Road to Self-Driving Cars
Once a dream for the future, self-driving cars may be within reach as manufacturers continue to develop and test models they say could be in every US household in a matter of years. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently reported that automakers have already evolved in the area of automated safety technologies, having almost reached the culmination of the Five Eras of Safety.
Though convenience is an attractive feature, safety is the main reason cited by the various players in the self-driving industry for the heavy push to transition to these new technologies. Without the human element, an automobile operating through technology is less likely to be involved in accidents – in theory. Despite the claims of potential safety, many of these technology players are racing to be the “first,” to market in order to plant a flag and potentially claim billions of dollars in profits. Indeed, whoever can ultimately dominate the self-driving industries of tomorrow, will likely secure their place in the pantheon of big business.
While various experts debate the timelines for the ubiquitous arrival of fully self-driving vehicles, various related technological safety and convenience innovations have already begun to trickle into the market place as a precursor of what is to come. While such features cannot now fully eliminate the potential for fatal and injury causing accidents, many such technologies are beginning to reduce some types of motor vehicle collisions or in some cases reduce the severity of unavoidable collisions.
Current Accident Prevention Technologies
For the last 70 years, much of the innovation in auto manufacturing was focused on protecting the car’s occupants in the event of a collision. Notable technologies that were accessible to motorists over the decades have included:
- 1950-2000: Anti-lock brakes and seatbelts;
- 2000-2010: Lane departure warning and blind spot detection;
- 2010-2016: Automatic emergency braking and lane centering assist;
- 2016-2025: Self-parking and traffic jam assist; and alpha versions of autopilot
Today, most of the concerted efforts are dedicated towards preventing accidents altogether to technologies that either warn or prompt the operator to take action or otherwise act in place of the operator by subsuming control of the vehicle to make split second decisions faster than the driver can. For example, many new vehicles made in 2017 or later now have some or all of the following technologies:
- Lane Departure Warning: This feature alerts the driver if he or she strays outside the lane of traffic, which can reduce the number of crashes linked to fatigued driving. Newer vehicles also come equipped with a prevention feature that triggers along with an alarm and automatically corrects the car into the proper lane using a combination of machine vision and sensors.
- Adaptive Cruise Control: Once a luxury option, cruise control is now a standard feature in most of cars on the road today. However, cruise control is still dependent upon input from the operator to function correctly. Adaptive cruise control is an incremental improvement of the cruise control technology, that not only maintains a constant speed, but it also incorporates cameras or sensors to detect reduction in velocity within traffic ahead, and will then apply the brakes to adjust without input from the vehicle operator. Once traffic picks up again, adaptive cruise control accelerates up to a safe speed. Thus, it removes the necessity for a driver’s input as to the accelerating and decelerating a vehicle on a highway. However, the driver still must operate the steering wheel and must otherwise monitor the vehicle’s actions in case the vehicle does not operate properly.
- Cross-Traffic Alerts: Intersections continue to be a common location for motor vehicle accidents, often because the motorist does not detect peripheral traffic approaching. Cross-traffic alert relies upon a camera or sensor that can spot vehicles oncoming from the side. An alert sounds to notify the driver to apply the brakes to avoid a collision. Rear cross-traffic alert is a related technology, which sounds an alarm when the operator is reversing into a dangerous situation.
- Blind Spot Monitoring: Side and center mirrors are limited, so you may not be able to detect other vehicles and objects in the gap known as the “blind spot.” You get a complete view with blind spot monitoring that warns you when there are threats in this zone.
- Automatic Braking: Even though it may take a fraction of a second for your brain to send a message to your foot to apply the brakes, automatic braking can arguably do it faster. Reaction time remains a factor in many crashes, simply due to the physical limitations of the human body. Though maybe just by a nanosecond, this feature trims down braking time to help you avoid or in some cases mitigate the impact and severity of a collision.
Automated safety features are promising and continue to advance, but there is still a long road ahead of modern civilization to reach full automation. Perhaps it will take a decade. Perhaps it will take a human lifetime. Nevertheless, in the world as it is currently, negligent vehicle operation continues to be the primary cause of most accidents, and will likely continue to be the main cause of such collisions over the next one or two decades. At some point, as self-driving technologies subsume entire transportation markets and perhaps human driving becomes obsolete, humanity may ultimately see significant declines in the number of injury causing collisions as safety-tech is refined and improved upon over time. However, the world is a still a dangerous place for moving vehicles, and it will likely not be possible to prevent all possible harm. In the future, it may be that most collisions that occur are due to software programming errors, misjudgment of AI, or perhaps failure of mechanical parts. Maybe simply just an inability of machines to perfectly “predict” the future will result in injury causing events that occur seemingly at random. Nevertheless, one can only hope that amidst the profits and the glory that inure to the winners in the technology arms races that humanity will benefit as vehicle safety is improved for everyone everywhere.