Right now, we focus on reducing fatalities and serious injuries. But as technology progresses, will automation become so safe virtually any collision can be avoided?
We’ll raise an extra glass when automation can prevent fender-benders or even the slightest scratch, which, incidentally, account for a much more significant economic loss than more severe outcomes. For now, though, our priority is making cars and roads safer.
But this transformation is slow, particularly considering that low- and middle-income countries typically bear the brunt of the issue. According to the WHO, despite having around 60% of the world’s vehicles, these countries experience 93% of all road fatalities. Moreover, these nations tend to have many pedestrians, bicycles, and motorcycles, which pose substantial technical challenges for AD systems. In some locations, highway automation is happening or is just around the corner, but solving more complex traffic environments globally will take time.
However, when the technology eventually becomes mature, scalable, affordable, and accessible enough – when a critical mass of vehicles globally are equipped with the right software – the automotive industry will have an unprecedented opportunity to reduce the number of car-related accidents radically. But we need to spend a lot of money and time developing it first.
It’s important not to look at this as a race.
Concerns about the industry’s rush to get self-driving vehicles to market are constantly being reported. It’s easy to find coverage of incidents involving autonomous vehicles (especially but not limited to robotaxis), and more accidents will happen as companies struggle to take their offers to impatient consumers. Many stakeholders have a vested interest in this highly promising, high-risk enterprise, and when it comes to safety, you’re just a faux pas away from a costly recall. The path to safe automation is turning out to be more of a marathon than a sprint. (A marathon laced with frequent, mind-blowing technological leaps, but a marathon all the same.)
Indeed, technological advancements in the car industry need time. Just consider what it took to get here. Safety development in the automotive industry has come a long way since the 1950s when carmakers first started focusing on safety. That’s when they began setting safety targets, analyzing data, and designing ways to prevent accidents and injuries. They even formed teams to investigate crashes and understand how injuries happened.
Volvo’s Accident Research Team was one such team, and they were pretty good at it, too (and still are!). Using crash test dummies, they developed new safety features like seat belts and airbags that were later incorporated into new car models. It was slow progress since hardware changes couldn’t be implemented until the next model came out. This meant that cars stayed pretty much the same, performance-wise, until they were retired.
Still, there were notable improvements in road safety. For example, Volvo reported a significant decrease in injuries from 1970 to the following 30 years. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, revolutionary safety features like seat belts and airbags became essential elements of car safety, reducing the risk of death from head-on collisions by 61%. This technology kept people inside the car safe.
Recently (relatively speaking), new active safety technologies like Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) have emerged to provide various safety and convenience features in modern vehicles. These systems use sensors, cameras, and other devices to help drivers avoid accidents, improve the driving experience, and reduce the overall stress of driving. Importantly, they have proven highly effective in reducing severe injuries and fatal accidents.
A groundbreaking feature of this new active safety technology was the ability to extend protection not only to those inside the car but also to those outside it. For example, a modern lidar-based solution – which employs lasers to measure distance, providing depth information while cameras offer high resolution – enables a car to detect objects in its surroundings up to 250 meters away. Impressively, it performs its duties equally well in darkness as in daylight. This extraordinary ability to identify pedestrians, their dogs, and other “objects” from a considerable distance allows us to avoid a dangerous situation entirely instead of desperately slamming the brakes.
As this tech advances and becomes more widely available, it’s expected to save many lives. That’s fantastic progress.
But why is the step from ADAS to AD so big? We’ve already automated so many of the driving tasks. Why is it so challenging to achieve full automation? In other words, why haven’t self-driving consumer cars become a reality yet?
From a philosophical standpoint, the distinction is clear. When a human is always present to assume control, the system doesn’t have to take responsibility for (and handle) unusual situations. In fact, such a system is designed to allow us to take certain risks, like breaking traffic rules to make way for an ambulance. When it gets challenging, we simply take over.
A fully automated driving system (ADS), on the other hand, must be capable of managing those situations itself (or any other traffic situation it can get itself into). There’s simply no plan B. No extra hand on the wheel or foot on the brake. Moreover, an ADS decides what is safe to do now and in the future – it is, in a sense, proactive – while the more reactive ADAS determines that something unsafe has already occurred and tries to make the best of the situation.
While the level of automation is a significant factor, the key distinction between advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous driving lies in the degree of human intervention required – the overall control of the vehicle. Automated driving systems thus mark a significant leap from ADAS by shifting the responsibility of driving from humans to technology. ADS offers full automation, enhancing safety by reducing human error, increasing efficiency in transportation, and providing mobility for those unable to drive, transforming our approach to travel.
Moreover, the development of ADS plays a crucial role in democratizing transportation by making it accessible to a wider range of people, particularly those who face challenges with traditional driving. This includes older adults, individuals with vision impairments, and others with physical or cognitive limitations.
So even though they are designs from the same drawing board, ADAS and AD are, in a sense, worlds apart.
And rest assured – it all ADs up. At Zenseact, we already make full use of important AD developments by implementing them in today’s safety systems. For instance, the superior perception needed for AD will also be deployed for automatic emergency braking. To us, pushing for safety means pushing for AD. Put differently: the more automated the safer.