Will Self-Diving Cars Reduce The Death Toll On Texas Highways?

Safety features that could lead to self-driving vehicles should also help to reduce the carnage caused by motor vehicle crashes.

Motor vehicles are a great convenience and luxury. They allow Texans to travel with air-conditioned comfort down the block or the 880 miles from El Paso to Orange on Interstate 10. Most Texans have access to a vehicle and because of that familiarity, they hardly give a thought to the danger they pose.

Consider that in 2015, there was not one single day where someone did not die on a Texas highway. Some days were worse than others were. On September 26, 2015, 22 individuals lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. While random murders cause fear and raise public interest, the daily toll of deadly crashes on the streets and highways are met with little awareness, except from the families of those involved.

A grim calendar you don't want a date with

The Texas Department of Transportation has created a crash and fatality calendar, which displays the number of crashes per day and the fatalities that result. It is grim to scan across the weeks and recognize that every number represents the loved ones of some family who tragically never came home from that trip to work, school, friends, dinner or a store.

While traffic fatalities had improved somewhat during the Great Recession, the scope of that "improvement" is made clear from one headline from 2010 that noted that traffic fatalities that year would have filled 70 jumbo jets. Imagine if more than one large commercial jet crashed every week throughout the year. It is unlikely the commercial airlines and aviation industry would survive such a year.

Human behavior is the problem

These numbers have remained relatively constant in the last decade or so. Somewhere around 35,000 Americans die every year in traffic crashes. A great many of these crashes are outright negligence. Drivers operate their vehicles intoxicated, while fatigued, while texting or otherwise distracted by electronic devices, drive too fast for conditions or any one of the thousands of other examples of bad judgment that take place behind the wheel.

While anti-drunk driving laws and safety awareness campaigns have had an effect, there are still thousands of deaths from drunk drivers every year. Warnings concerning distracted driving and texting have increased, but so has the problem. The difficulty with much distracted driving is that we may not accurately identify these crashes, and the scope of the problem may still be understated.

The possible solution

This is one reason autonomous or self-driving vehicles are seen with so much hope. By taking the infinitely fallible human out of the picture, and placing unblinking, never tired, never intoxicated computers at the controls, we will finally be able to do something about the tragic carnage that occurs every day in Texas and the nation's highways.

The problems with the possible solution

Billions have been spent by tech companies such as Google and Apple, and by the major automakers in an effort develop an autonomous vehicle. Google has been testing models on the roads of California, and a large facility for testing these vehicles is being built in Michigan.

Because the technology is new, many people will be leery of a vehicle without steering wheels, brakes and drivers. There is a fear that if there are early crashes with fatalities, it could end public support for the project. Developing a fully autonomous vehicle is a daunting activity and it may be necessary to incrementally introduce "safety features" that gradually take over from human drivers.

Two paths

There are two groups with a large incentive to push for full autonomy. Ride-share service, like Uber and Lyft and trucking companies. In both these industries, humans are a very expensive element of the process. Without human drivers, Uber and Lyft could substantially decrease the cost of their service and increase their profit.

Trucking company would benefit from eliminating the cost of driver payroll and the complications caused by those drivers. It could eliminate truck crashes caused by fatigued drivers violating their hours of service limits and bring about a world with trucks that could drive nonstop from coast to coast, limited only by the fuel they could carry.

The first steps have already been taken. Trucks have been successfully tested with collision avoidance systems, which employ automatic braking to prevent rear-end collisions. The concept of "Platooning" may be next, with multiple trucks traveling very close together, controlled by a driver in the first truck. It would save both fuel and the cost of additional drivers.

Collision avoidance systems are likely to be added to passenger vehicles in the next few years and may soon be ubiquitous as ABS brakes and vehicle stability control. Other likely systems will be lane detection systems and adaptive cruise control. These systems can all assist human drivers to be safer, stepping in to avoid a crash when humans are distracted.

Public acceptance?

It may take a few years with this type of implementation before there may be widespread acceptance of driverless, 80,000-pound trucks traveling at 70 mph on Texas interstates. There likely will be crashes and fatalities. Only time will tell if the implementation of some of these systems will reduce the staggering number of deaths and injuries that result from human error.