To Err Is Human, Especially When Driving

Tens of thousands die on the highways due to driver mistakes. Autonomous vehicles could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars resulting from the injuries and deaths, but such technology is still under development.

Driving is a necessary activity for thousands of individuals in Nevada every day. If you could not drive, you would unable to go to work, school, go shopping or out to eat, or any of the thousands of other reason we get behind the wheel during the course of a day. Americans drive a staggering number of miles every year. In 2015, we set a record of 1.4 trillion miles.

Driving all of these miles means most Americans are exposed to numerous opportunities for a motor vehicle crash. The more you drive, the greater your exposure. The death toll from driving has been reduced over the years, as vehicles incorporate ever more safety devices. Seat belts, better brakes and tires, airbags, traction control and other features make avoiding and surviving a crash more likely than ever.

Record low fatalities in 2014

In fact, in 2014 saw the lowest number of fatalities since 1949. Unfortunately, as the price of gas dropped and more people found jobs after the recession, last year witnessed the largest increase in traffic deaths in 50 years, with 38,300 fatalities. In addition to these deaths, about 4.4 million were injured.

The cost to individual families is incalculable. The emotional loss of a husband, wife or child is devastating and carries a lifetime price tag for those who survive. The financial loss can be equally devastating.

Nearly $1 trillion in costs

Motor vehicle crashes are expensive to the nation, as well. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has calculated the annual economic cost of motor vehicle crashes at $836 billion. That works out to $800 for every man, woman and child in the U.S., and since it was based on data from 2010 when highway deaths were much lower at 32,299, such a study for 2015 would likely edge close to $1 trillion dollars annually.

Given the toll that these crashes levy on the nation, coming up with some means of reducing these numbers is very important. The difficulty is that for all of the safety devices we have installed in vehicles, many are passive. They only work if a crash occurs and some require a driver to cooperate, as with seat belts.

The driver is often the problem

Humans, it turns out, often make a great many mistakes while driving. Driving is very complex activity, and our constant exposure and familiarity with it leave us at risk of believing we are so competent at it that we can do other things, including texting or reading email, browsing the web or updating Facebook, even watching movies.

Thousands of deaths testify to the fallibility of such belief. These are added to the other sources of distraction, like alcohol or drug impairment, eating, smoking, shaving, applying makeup and thousands of other bad ideas. While technology sometimes fails, the vast majority of motor vehicle crashes are caused by human error.

If only we could build a driver that never was inattentive

The promise of an autonomous vehicle is just that. Equipped with a computer and a sophisticated array of sensors that would evaluate a vast variety of data: how fast the vehicle was traveling, air temperature, the presence of precipitation, traffic density, the pressure in the tires, and the average fuel mileage, the vehicle would seemingly know everything.

In addition to sensors, the computer would probably be networked to communicate with other vehicles on the road and infrastructure like traffic signals, which would allow the entire flow of traffic to be viewed as a system and each vehicles movement optimized to create a seamless and utterly safe movement of that traffic.

This is the utopian vision. We have miles to go before we reach that goal. There are likely to be many challenges in the process of transitioning to autonomous vehicles. Nevertheless, given the inherent unreliability of the human drivers and tremendous toll crashes impose on the U.S., it seems inevitable that autonomous vehicles will eventually replace the fallible human element of the driving equation.