Driverless Cars or Safer Cars for Drivers?
by Stan Hazen
It seems like every week you see or hear articles or news items about driverless cars, self-driving cars, autonomous cars. Sometimes with a note of skepticism, but more often with a tone of excitement and of amazement with technology, and with the point of view that it’s coming, it’s inevitable, it’s just a matter of time—and isn’t it going to be great and so much better than having people drive cars.
I get it. I see the appeal of the idea. We all complain about and get frustrated with bad drivers and bad driving that we have to deal with. (Other drivers, of course. Not us.) Driving too fast or too slow. Driving recklessly. Changing lanes dangerously. Failing to signal. Failing to yield. Running red lights, or not noticing that the light has changed to green. And the big one these days: driving while distracted by a smartphone. While we might not consciously think about it often, we know that one of the most dangerous things we do every day is to get into a 4,000-pound steel machine on wheels and drive on roads with thousands of others at speeds up to 75 miles per hour or more.
We also recognize and appreciate what technology can do—the ever-increasing number of advancements and innovations that we’ve seen in recent years. And those advancements keep coming at ever-increasing speed, in the design of cars as well as thousands of other products. It’s natural to have a sense that technology can do anything, solve any problem—that nothing is impossible.
But that’s not reality. People, despite all their individual differences and imperfections, are incredibly complex and advanced. The human body, mind, memory, senses, instincts, intuition, personality, emotions, values, and soul are infinitely more complex and advanced than any computer or machine could ever be. It’s not even close. Machines might do some things faster or more accurately than people, but not something infinitely complex, that involves continually processing thousands or millions of pieces of information and making decisions or taking action instantaneously based on sensory input, judgment, values, instincts, intuition, and the conscious and unconscious learning from years of experience. Not something like driving.
And when you step back and look at the big picture, people are really amazingly competent and responsible drivers. (Now we’re talking about us, not those other drivers.) Most of us drive thousands of miles per year, year after year, and rarely—sometimes never—have an accident. And while many people—too many people—die in motor vehicle accidents, it’s really a very rare thing. In 2014 there were 32,675 deaths from motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. But as big as that number is, that’s just 1.07 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (source: nhtsa.gov). When you think about it, we humans have done a pretty impressive job at developing road systems and machines to allow us to move efficiently from place to place, and we do it very safely.
In addition to the fact that people generally are very good at driving, people want to drive. Research by Decision Analyst and others consistently shows that most drivers would not want a self-driving car. They prefer to be the driver. They are very interested in the advanced safety features that technology is making available (like backup camera, lane-keep assist, blind-spot warning, front collision warning and avoidance, electronic stability control, drowsiness warning, adaptive headlights, and adaptive cruise control). But most drivers think that it’s best that they be in control—that they’ll ultimately do a better job at driving than a self-driving car will. I think they’re right.
I believe that too much attention and hype is focused on the idea of driverless cars—something not likely to become a large-scale reality anytime soon, if ever. It’s within our reach right now to significantly improve car safety through technology, and we should continue to aggressively pursue those improvements. But if we assume that we’re going to keep people as drivers for now, then our focus for improving car safety should be much more on drivers and less on driverless.
Involve drivers—real-world end users—in safety-system ideation, design, and usability testing. Get their feedback and suggestions for improvements. Learn about drivers’ experience with current safety features. Understand what features or systems they like and don’t like, what works well for them and what doesn’t, and why. Design great, user-tested safety features and systems, and make them available and affordable. Understand why car buyers choose a car with advanced safety systems or don’t. Understand their concerns. Work to increase awareness of safety features and knowledge about their benefits and effectiveness. Use real-life stories of safety features preventing accidents or saving lives. Provide incentives to buy safer cars. (The insurance industry has a role in all of this too.)
And while we’re doing those things, let’s also continue to focus attention and effort on the other side of the car safety issue: driver behavior and a few big behavioral problems. Drunk driving represented one-third of vehicle-related fatalities in 2014. Distracted driving represented another 10%. Drowsy driving another 3%. That’s approaching half of all fatalities just from those three causes. Also, nearly half of all vehicle occupants who died in accidents (49%) were not wearing seatbelts. Safety technology is helping reduce the bad results from these problem behaviors, but working to reduce the behaviors is still extremely important.
I hope we continue to develop new and improved safety features and systems for our cars, continue to be amazed by what technology and automakers can do, and continue to be excited about the future. But let’s not forget the driver. For product designers, manufacturers, and marketers, that’s where our focus should start and end.
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