Can We Improve Road Safety Without Removing the Driver?



Will Hornick
05/23/2014

Last month, an amendment to the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic was agreed upon which changed the language to the convention. Essentially it will allow a vehicle to be operated without the driver having full control. It seems like this amendment did not generate much attention in the mainstream media. I found one article from Reuters written a few days ago and that was essentially distributed through some of the automotive news sources with little analysis.

One interesting point to note is that the U.S., Japan and China are not participants to the convention so their legal systems will each need to deal with autonomous driving in their own ways.

The European manufacturers clearly see an opportunity to establish themselves as the first movers into a new self-driving car market taking advantage of the fact that they have the knowledge to actually produce a high volume of vehicles compared to the start-up companies in the U.S. who don't have that institutional knowledge. Maybe it will turn out that the European car companies have calculated correctly. On the other hand, the U.S. tech companies may not actually intend to be first movers into this new market. There are some inherent risks with being the first ones in and in this case, it's not clear that the financial rewards will be better by being first.

Probably the most central goal of increasingly automated functions in a vehicle is to improve road safety and to correct (or anticipate) driver error. This is a good goal. Imagine a world where the nightly news did not always have to report traffic fatalities and imagine the countless lives that would not have to be affected by this kind of tragedy.

Where I come from, the car has always been a representation of freedom and of American Wanderlust (thanks to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont for that phrase). I wonder if the self-driving car will be able to tap into the romanticized symbolism so valued by car enthusiasts or if it will start out more like the Prius did - popular as a statement.

If the latter is true then will the safety aspect be a powerful enough message to tap into some underlying cultural current or will the convenience aspect allowing former drivers to instead be connected during their commute turn out to be the force that wins the day?

I'm no luddite and I truly appreciate the potential for reducing road injuries and fatalities. That said, I also dread the day that I will have to go to a track to have an 'old-fashioned' driving experience...

Will Hornick is the Managing Editor of Automotive IQ

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