Have you ever wondered: Who really needs a self-driving car?
Safety of course, is the big pitch and the strongest argument the automotive industry has trumpeted in its case for autonomous cars. The question now is how effective we expect Google cars, or any other self-driving cars, to be in terms of saving people's lives.
Marketing presentations for chips, software, and subsystems — all supposedly designed to enable the building blocks of autonomous cars — tend to start with a similar setup: a litany of depressing numbers illustrating how many people are needlessly killed every year in traffic accidents in the US and worldwide.
So, there were no surprises there, when Google's director of safety for self-driving cars, Ron Medford, started his speech at the ITS World Congress in Tokyo last week by running through a set of depressing slides repeating the familiar premise.
Medford was the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's deputy director until he was recruited by Google earlier this year. Considering his previous position, the figures he rattled off, based on 2011 numbers in the United States, were both scary and convincing.:
But his presentation made a surprising turn when Medford showed the following slide.
Of 32,367 people who died in traffic accidents in the United States in 2011, 54 percent of them were not wearing seat belts.
As he put it in his speech, “[T]he best automotive safety technology ever invented,” is the seat belt. People are still dying in droves simply because they forget (or refuse) to buckle up.
Medford's message was clear. Even the best automotive safety technology can't possibly save every life. The limit to the effectiveness of safety technology is the way people use it, or don't use it.
He said that 292,471 lives were saved by seat belts between 1975 and 2011. Yet, during the same period, 45 percent of people killed in front seats in passenger cars were wearing seat belts.
The same applies to child seats, according to Medford. Despite 9,874 lives saved between 1975 and 2011, because of child seats 71 percent of infants and 54 percent of toddlers killed in accidents died in their child seats.
Thanks to Electronic Stability Control (ESC) — required in all vehicles by 2011 — fatality rates have been dropping. Still, in 2011, the death toll in ESC-equipped cars was 49 percent in single-vehicle accidents.
Certainly the safety expectation for self-driving cars is very high. But expecting it to be 100 percent effective isn't really realistic, he concluded. After all, every automotive safety measure has helped to reduce fatality rates, but none has proven to be 100 percent effective.
“I've heard people saying that one accident in a self-driving car will set back the technology for 10 years,” he said. But in his opinion, that sort of unfair and impractical expectation can only harm, rather than advance, the development of technologies for autonomous cars.
We are forewarned. Google cars will not result in zero fatalities on the road — not now, not soon, and not until people stop using cars entirely.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in EETimes.