Safety first, safety always

Let’s face it, CAVs are potentially the most significant breakthrough in road safety

Kirk Steudle / January 29, 2018
Kirk Steudle

When it comes to connected and autonomous vehicles, you could say I was an early adopter. My interest in this technology dates back more than a decade, and while there are many benefits, none matters more than the potential to save lives.

At the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), safety is paramount. It defines everything we do, from designing roads and managing work sites to overseeing contractor performance. That is why MDOT has embraced the Toward Zero Deaths movement. The only acceptable number for deaths on Michigan roads is zero. That sounds lofty, I realize. But when you ask someone how many deaths from auto crashes are acceptable, people scratch their heads, then the answers vary widely. Phrase the question another way: “How many crash deaths are acceptable for your family members?”­—the answer is, understandably, a quick and resounding “zero!”

Some 37,000 people died on our nation’s roads last year, yet the reporting on each is often minimal, no doubt reflecting our unfortunate acceptance of these tragedies.

Think about it. Thirty-seven thousand deaths. People like you and me, our spouses, children. Just conducting their daily lives, commuting to work, traveling for vacation, driving to a child’s school concert or football game.

That number is the equivalent of 370 plane crashes with 100 passengers each, any one of which catastrophes would have us riveted to the wall-to-wall media coverage it would cause. Yet, we seem to accept automobile crash deaths that happen a few at a time.

The development of CAVs offers the most significant breakthrough to reduce that number since the advent of the automobile. As reported in the Atlantic Monthly in 2015, researchers estimate driverless cars could, by mid-century, reduce traffic deaths by as much as 90%. In the U.S. alone, that would save 300,000 lives over a decade.

Let’s face it: The exponential evolution of technology shows no signs of slowing. That technology both enables and demands multitasking. Multitasking might be fine in some instances but not when it comes to driving.

Despite ever-evolving laws and prolific safety campaigns, distracted driving continues to cause more crashes and more deaths. And while automakers have made tremendous strides in building safer vehicles (seat belts, air bags, anti-lock brakes, lane control, adaptive cruise control), even while the technology and research continues to save lives, we discover new distractions to offset the gains. Today, more than 68% of U.S. adults have a smartphone, up from 35% in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center.

While safety is the overriding imperative, driverless cars hold other benefits—chief among them being mobility in our golden years. If any of you have had to take the keys from a parent or another elderly relative, you know how painful that can be.

All of this brings me to some key things going on in Michigan. Gov. Rick Snyder has signed bills to allow complete AV operations on any road, any time, with no special license; allow for truck platooning; allow on-demand automated networks; and has created the Michigan Council on Future Mobility.

So the future of self-driving vehicles presents myriad ways to make our lives safer and more efficient. As someone who has spent his entire career, more than three decades, searching for ways to improve the movement of people and goods, I see limitless possibilities.

About the Author

Steudle is director of the Michigan Department of Transportation.

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