Autonomous Driving vs Driver Distraction
During the recent 50th anniversary of Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s groundbreaking book regarding the vehicle safety, Nader said the auto industry should put the brakes on automated driving. “Self-driving cars are a bad move.”
Nader went on to say that autonomous vehicles will contribute to the already prevalent danger of distracted driving, which is generating thousands of deaths per year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 10 percent of 2014’s traffic fatalities were caused by distracted driving. This year, preliminary figures show that U.S. traffic deaths rose 8 percent through June with the culprit suspected to be smartphone use.
According to the AAA Foundation Traffic Safety Culture Index, nearly 69 percent of U.S. drivers reported talking on their cell phone (hand-held or hand-free) at least once during the past 30 days of the study period. More than a quarter of drivers admitted to typing or sending a text message or email and 34.6 percent reported reading a text message or email while driving within that month.
A 2011 global CDC study indicated that talking, texting and reading emails on a cell phone is more of an issue in the United States than other countries, but that may be changing. Another survey – the 2013 Community Attitudes to Road Safety found that 61 percent of Australian drivers admitted to using their cell phone while driving while more than 82 percent believed using a cell phone while driving increased the risk of having an accident.
This matches the American view of cell phone use, where 88.5 percent feel that a driver talking on a cell phone represents a somewhat or a serious threat to their personal safety. Yet, we continue to want more infotainment and more connectivity from our vehicles. Indeed, it’s predicted that automotive infotainment systems — including connected navigation, multimedia streaming, social media — will increase from 9 million vehicles in 2013 to at least 62 million in 2018.
This would seem to make the argument for autonomous driving being a “good move,” helping to solve some of the driver distraction issues and make our roads a safer place to drive.
Autonomous Driving – Will It be Adopted?
However, here’s the ironic part of the discussion. According to a World Economic Forum Study, although reduction of accidents and increased safety is seen as a primary benefit of autonomous driving, only 58 percent of consumers globally would be willing to “take a ride” (as in a test drive) in a self-driving vehicle. Certainly, there is agreement that many of the newer advanced technologies such as collision avoidance systems, parking assist and adaptive headlights have contributed to a safer driving experience. But, these driver assist technologies are a far cry from a vehicle which has the ability to continually process information and react to ever-changing situations similar to a human driver.
The problem is that our brains are increasingly being occupied by other activities, and these activities decrease our processing abilities. For example, drivers text messaging behind the wheel are eight times as likely to be in a crash or near crash as drivers who are not texting. Drivers conversing on phones increase their risk of a crash by up to four times.
Let’s face it – it is not likely that these distracted behaviors will diminish without legislation, backed up by police follow-through and significant fines. Human behaviors are hard to change.
Nader’s concern about autonomous vehicles is that drivers are losing control of the software and thus have less control of the vehicle down the road. My concern is that drivers currently do have control of the vehicle, but are engaging in risky, yet socially acceptable driving behaviors every day by their use of mobile devices.