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It all ADs up

Developing safe automation takes time. Currently, our focus is on reducing fatalities and serious injuries. However, as our technology progresses, automation will become so reliably and predictably safe that 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 World Health Organization (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 just around the corner, but solving more complex traffic environments globally won’t happen overnight.

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 have to spend a lot of money and time to develop 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 robotaxis), and more accidents will happen as companies struggle to take their offers to impatient consumers. There are many stakeholders with a vested interest in this highly promising enterprise.

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, though, 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. 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%, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 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 is its ability to extend protection not only to those inside the car but also to those outside of 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 during the night as in daylight. This extraordinary ability to identify pedestrians, their dogs, and other “objects” from a considerable distance, even in darkness, 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 or 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.

However, a fully automated driving system (ADS) must be capable of managing any traffic situation it can get itself into. There’s 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.

So even though they are designs from the same drawing board, ADAS and AD are, in fact, worlds apart. But there’s no need to fret – it all ADs up. We already make full use of important AD developments by implementing them in today’s safety systems.

Stay tuned.

8 August 2023


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