Self-Driving Cars: Saving Lives is Worth Losing Lives

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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Americans, we keep hearing, are frightened over the prospect of autonomous cars. A few high-profile fatalities of Autopiloting Teslas get splashed on TV, and nervous consumers begin to imagine run amok armies of robotic cars.

You know what? More people are going to die in crashes either caused by or related to self-driving technology. And that’s actually a good thing.

Inevitably, when someone dies in a robocar—even in the most isolated, extreme scenario—fearmongers and click-baiters will blame the tech. Here and there, they may be right.

Yes, you read that right. It’s a good thing, a net plus for society and human kind. Because as you’re reading this, people are dying around the world in car crashes, and nobody bats an eye. In America alone, more than 100 people a day are killed in car crashes, about 40,000 a year, with 4.5 million people seriously injured. Around the world, 1.2 million people a year are sent to early graves because of crashes, including drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists. Ninety-five percent of those crashes have nothing to do with defective cars or newfangled technology. They’re the result of human error, period. Nearly 1.2 million people a year, all killed because somebody was driving recklessly, driving drunk, not paying attention, or otherwise screwing up.

Of course it’s sad. Yet we’re worried about computers doing the driving? Please. I’d already take my chances in a self-driving car, compared with some of the Uber clowns I deal with in New York. Autonomous cars can and will revolutionize driving. Saving lives—not by the thousands, but by the hundreds of thousands—will be the most celebrated part of that revolution. Looking back from, say, the year 2040, we’ll marvel that we tolerated mass vehicular destruction for so long, just as we shake our heads today over old-school cars with no seatbelts.

Of course, this will take time. Most autonomy experts believe that we’re still years away from showroom cars that can drive themselves anywhere, anytime, with no human back-up. But I’m bullish on the technology, because I’ve seen it work, and I see the almost limitless possibilities. Mind you, I’m not at all in favor of human drivers being used as beta subjects and guinea pigs for autonomous systems that aren’t fully vetted, engineered and tested to be as safe as possible. What I am saying is that we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Robotic cars have much to learn about the nuances of driving, especially the tricky ballet of city streets and tangled intersections. But robocars won’t text or speed. They won’t run redlights, weave through traffic or take other reckless risks. And they’ll never, ever drive drunk, a condition that, despite strides in enforcement and education, is still responsible for about 10,000 annual fatalities in the U.S. alone.

Experts I’ve spoken with believe that autonomous cars could virtually eliminate drunk driving and its human toll, since tipsy passengers would have their own robo-chauffeur. Thomas Müller, head of automated driving for Audi AG, says that car owners are already keenly interested in digital designated driving. The mayor of Ingolstadt, Germany, where Audi is headquartered, suggested that Oktoberfest celebrations would benefit greatly from autonomous cars.

“The mayor asked me, ‘When can I have a car pick up my daughter from the party at 3 a.m., while I’m sleeping?” Müller recalls.

Colleen Sheehey-Church, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, once told me that if autonomous cars had been available in 2004, her son Dustin might be alive today. Dustin Church was killed when an alcohol-impaired teen drove their car into a river.

“My hope is that there will be a day when no family will endure the agony of drunk driving, and that supports development of this technology,” Sheehey-Church said.

If that sounds like a pipe dream—flying cars for the 21st century—think again. The groundwork for dramatically safer vehicles is already being laid. Using sensor suites of cameras, radar, sonar and software, the technology is already reducing crashes and saving lives. By September 2021, every new car in America will be equipped with Automated Emergency Braking (AEB) and Forward Collision Warnings (FCW). Those cars will alert distracted drivers to an impending front-end collision, and then stop themselves to avoid or mitigate collisions with cars, pedestrians or objects.

In study after study, those systems are proving their worth. In studies of models from Acura, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru and Volvo, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the combo of AEB and FCW reduced front-to-rear crash rates by a remarkable 50 percent, and 56 percent in crashes that resulted in injuries.

It’s only natural for people to be skeptical of autonomous cars. Any unfamiliar technology can seem unnerving, especially when it’s hitched to a two-ton, fast-moving object. Trust me: The first ten minutes you spend in an autonomous car will seem a little freaky. Ten minutes later, you’re marveling over what seems like sci-fi technology. Ten minutes after that, you’re relaxing and enjoying the ride. You get used to it very quickly.

Inevitably, when someone dies in a robocar—even in the most isolated, extreme scenario—fearmongers and click-baiters will blame the tech. Here and there, they may be right. Mistakes will be made, unforeseen problems addressed. That’s how technology evolves. But when those crashes happen, some perspective will be helpful. Did you know it’s been more than 10 years since a person was killed in an airliner crash in America? In that time, nearly a half-million people have died in car crashes. Yet many people are nervous about flying, but don’t think twice about hopping into a stranger’s Uber, and neglecting to buckle up. Like the fear of flying, the fear of robocars will ultimately become irrational, a wild overreaction to the actual level of threat.

Industry leaders emphasize that the goal of zero highway deaths isn’t realistic. But their goal is to create cars that are virtually incapable of causing an accident. Despite a half-century of reductions in automotive deaths and injury, our roadways are still some of the most dangerous places on earth. We can do better. So don’t be afraid of the self-driving car. Someday, one may save your life.

Illustration by Paul Laguette

About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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