Self-Driving Cars Promise Thousands of Saved Lives, but Drivers Must Remain Engaged

11/08/2017 10:24 am ET

More and more automakers are developing self-driving cars, bringing us ever closer to the game changer that will be full automation on our roads.

Traffic fatalities continue to rise and we must embrace new solutions. In 2016, traffic fatalities increased by nearly 6 percent, continuing a two-year climb. Considering that 94 percent of car crashes are due to human error, from distracted to impaired driving, fully self-driving cars could be a logical solution, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives every year.

But we cannot check out too early. Drivers must remain engaged as we transition from driving our cars to having our cars drive for us.

Partial vs. fully self-driving

One thing every driver must understand is that none of the cars on our roads today are fully self-driving. Many new cars boast advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) – from automatic emergency brakes to self-parking capabilities – but no car on the road today is able to fully drive itself without a driver present to take over, when necessary.

Some cars are getting closer: Audi, for example, is soon releasing its A8, which is capable of piloting during traffic jams and Tesla’s “autopilot” feature is designed to maintain speed and lane keeping in certain situations. However, drivers are still needed to operate these vehicles safely and they will be for some time. Even as our driving culture evolves, we need to stay engaged anytime we are behind the wheel.

Driver distraction without a driver

This is especially important considering the epidemic of distracted driving on our roads. Distraction from cell phones and built-in infotainment systems has resulted in thousands of fatal crashes and, as highly automated vehicles become more common on our roads, drivers may view their role as less and less important. While self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically cut down on distracted and impaired driving crashes, as long as we have steering wheels and brake pedals in the car, drivers must stay engaged in the driving task.

The well-known May 2016 Tesla crash is a reminder of how important it is for drivers to remain engaged when using self-driving features. An NTSB investigation into the fatal crash found that the vehicle’s “autopilot” system was used in a way it was not approved for and encountered an obstacle it did not recognize. Unfortunately, the driver was not paying attention to the driving task and did not engage to avoid the crash.

Increasing education

This Tesla crash was a wake-up call for everyone that embraces greater vehicle automation and demonstrates the need for continued driver education around highly automated features – both the benefits, as well as their limitations. To help, NSC maintains MyCarDoesWhat.org to teach drivers about the advanced safety features present in their cars today and how to use them safely.

NSC also recently partnered with Waymo and other organizations to launch the Let’s Talk Self-Driving campaign, designed to educate the public on the potential self-driving cars bring to roadway safety and mobility. Through these campaigns, we can help drivers become more comfortable with highly automated features, while reinforcing the human driver’s role in keeping our roads safe when they are behind the wheel of a vehicle that isn’t fully automated.

Driver responsibility

In addition to eliminating the tens of thousands of traffic deaths we see every year, fully self-driving cars could also bring independence and mobility to many people. It is a worthy goal, but until vehicles are sold without steering wheels or brakes, you are still your car’s best safety feature. So, as long as we are in the driver’s seat, we need to act like it.

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