Automotive News reports:“Toyota’s James Kuffner is among a global band of safety experts proposing a radical goal for the auto industry: zero traffic deaths.
The target may be unattainable, safety advocates concede. But they say it is possible to virtually eliminate the 30,000-plus annual highway fatalities in the U.S.
Kuffner, chief technology officer at the Toyota Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., says that if the industry moves decisively, within a decade “the probability of being killed in a traffic accident would be smaller than being killed by lightning.”
But automakers must speed the usual decades long pace of adoption of new technology, safety experts say, and get advanced data-crunching, crash-avoidance and communications capability into vehicles as quickly as possible.
“The longer it isn’t deployed,” Kuffner says, “the more people die.”
The war on traffic deaths would require profound changes to vehicles, the way they operate and the way they’re regulated.
And it would upend many industry norms. Can automakers sell safety instead of performance? Will their customers love robotic cars that don’t crash — but travel cautiously, carefully obeying traffic laws?”
Since 2000, automakers have introduced an array of safety technology: forward-collision warning, rear cameras, lane-departure warning, traffic-jam assist, adaptive cruise control and the like.
Put it all together, says Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and “We’re right on the technological cusp. We have this totally new, really exciting chance to make a difference.”
The challenge is to get the technology into vehicles quickly but safely, he says. But the goal is sufficiently compelling to ensure that change will happen.
“Everyone’s got their own view of what the future is going to be,” Rosekind says. “We’re watching the future get created right in front of us.”
Much of the impetus comes from Vision Zero, a policy written into Swedish law in 1997. Its core tenet is that there is no acceptable level of traffic fatalities; the goal is zero deaths.
The policy fits the safety consciousness of Sweden’s only major automaker, Volvo, which has pledged that no one will die in an accident in a new Volvo car by 2020.
While other automakers are cautious about getting to zero — one executive marveled that Volvo’s lawyers would let the company make such a claim — Volvo r&d chief Peter Mertens isn’t backing off.
“By 2020, I think we have a good chance to be damn close to it,” he says.
With continual refinement of safety systems and adoption of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, Mertens says, it is possible to eliminate traffic deaths: “Once all vehicles are connected, then I think we can achieve zero fatalities in traffic.”
Chauffeurs or angels?
Volvo epitomizes one of two industry approaches to reducing fatalities — although they mostly differ in how quickly they propose to get to self-driving, connected vehicles.
Toyota’s Kuffner terms the two schools “chauffeur” and “guardian angel”:
• The chauffeur mode, championed by Google, uses self-driving vehicles. As Kuffner puts it, “the human doesn’t really have to participate. The car can drive itself.”
• The “guardian angel” approach uses vehicles driven by humans, but with computerized safety systems ready to intervene. Volvo and other automakers following this path say it probably will lead to fully autonomous vehicles, but improving crash avoidance and protection is more realistic in the near term….
If the crash-prevention systems follow the usual timetable, Rosekind says, “It takes 20 to 30 years for new technology to penetrate the fleet.”
But inertia shouldn’t be an excuse, advocates say. Lawrence Burns, an industry consultant and former General Motors head of r&d, says tolerance for traffic deaths is an outdated attitude.
“The acceptance of roadway fatalities for over a century is really amazing, if you think about it,” Burns says. “It’s not that the industry hasn’t improved safety. It has, but the improvement has been incremental….”
One reason for traditional automakers’ urgency is pressure from new competitors such as Google, with its self-driving cars, and Apple, rumored to be working on a car. Volvo’s Mertens says new players may speed the industry’s adoption of technology.
“We are pretty slow. The auto industry isn’t known for high speed of innovations,” Mertens says. “Others — the Silicon Valley guys that think they can do cars — I think they will help us.”
Burns puts it more bluntly, saying automakers must shift their r&d budgets toward safety: “I think we’re going to be in a dramatically different world in 2025 than we are today.
“Either the incumbents are going to redirect how they spend their money, or they’re going to have their lunch eaten.” See