Moving incrementally towards robot cars


Safety on U.S. roadways has been steadily improving since the 1970’s. In 2010, 32,885 persons were killed in crashes involving motorized vehicles, the lowest number recorded since 1949. The largest number of traffic fatalities was recorded in 1972, when 54,589 persons were killed. We have made substantial improvement in reducing the overall number of fatalities.

As much as I want to take credit for myself and other traffic engineers for this improvement, I can’t. We have made great strides as a profession. We’ve created infrastructure programs targeted at improving known safety issues. We’ve created safety campaigns and completed a huge amount of research aimed at understanding how to design safer roadways. However, most engineers are quick to admit that the majority of the credit belongs to the automobile manufacturers for making safer cars (or to the regulatory bodies that forced the automobile manufacturers to make safer cars).

However, cars are not doing enough to keep us safe. Not anywhere close. And we have been negligent in demanding that automobile manufacturers continue to develop technologies to keep us more safe. Robot cars that completely eliminate humans from the equation are the answer, and we’re slowly getting there, but too slowly.

We can not wait for Google to unveil the full robot car. We can’t wait for Google to perfect the full driverless vehicle before we begin making progress in that direction. We’ve already waited too long. There are a number of ways we should be implementing various robot car technologies that eliminate human control of the vehicles at critical times. Here is a list of a few things cars should be doing (but aren’t) to keep us safer that move us in the direction of robot cars:

  • Cars should be required to be GPS equipped. Cars should know the speed limits of the roadways on which they are driving. Cars should not be capable of exceeding those speed limits.
  • Cars should be able to sense when a vehicle is rapidly approaching a stopped or slowing object (like another car). When the car senses that the driver has been negligent in slowing to avoid hitting the stopped object, cars should apply the brakes for us. Rear end crashes should not happen.
  • Cars should be able to  identify the solid white fog line (edge line) and sense when vehicles are about to drive off the road. Cars should either correct the steering for us, or at least sound an alarm to alert us (e.g. wake a sleeping driver). Oh, and in those cases, cars should also electronically prohibit drivers from wildly over-correcting.
  • Cars should not be permitted to accelerate aggressively (except for cases when the GPS recognizes that you are, say, on a freeway on-ramp and may need to accelerate quickly). Quick acceleration should not be permitted in, say, parking lots.

This is just a quick list off the top of my head. I’m sure there are other ways cars should be doing a better job keeping us safe. The technology necessary to accomplish these goals is not beyond our capabilities. I am not certain why we have not already implemented these technologies, but I think we probably could have deployed these technologies a decade ago had we wanted to do it.

Automobile manufacturers will not embrace these changes until we force them to. The time is now to require automobile manufacturers to begin to implement these (and other) measures to keep us safe.


5 thoughts on “Moving incrementally towards robot cars

  1. Rob

    Here's another one dealing with pedestrians: at crosswalks without signals, if a pedestrian is either in the crosswalk or in a designated space where they are about to cross, cars going in both directions must stop. (NY State Law.)

    All of your points harken back to the early days of the automobile so well-described by Peter Norton in his book "Fighting Traffic". One campaign in Cinncinnati called for speed governors to not permit cars to exceed 25 mph. Given the links between GPS and city boundaries, it seems like speed governors could be implemented. Then maybe nobody would exceed the 30mph speed limit in New York City.

  2. KillMoto

    Robot cars have a lot of potential. But we need to regulate them from day one. Here are a few areas that need consideration:

    1) The need for concrete responsibility for every trip. We can no longer tolerate instances where a car hit a person, and when found, the owner denies being the driver. Time for smart chip + PIN enabled drivers licenses that record who is responsible for every mile travelled. Oh, and a photo of their face would be nice, too. Why do we need this? I believe that by and large, robocars will do a better job than people. But there will be exceptions, and ultimately the human being that made the choice to go for a drive is the person responsible.

    2) Robocars need a full-on Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) communication and coordination system. In the 21st century, we must demand that V2V systems are fully open to non-motorized roadway users: cyclists and people walking. How would we be part of V2V? A smart phone with WiFi is a good start. The robocar has a better chance of slowing to pass and giving me at least 3 feet of clearance if it's talking to my cell phone.

    3) One of the few "costs" to our over-subsidized single occupant motor vehicle system is the cost one pays as driver. The need to pay a modicum of attention while stuck at a light, or in traffic, or driving the streets. Take away that cost, and people will drive more. This will lead to greater congestion (impacting those without robocars more), greater pollution, greater wear and tear of the roadways. Therefore, with the cost of driving removed, robocars should pay a higher dollar cost. Robocars should be taxed in a way more closely aligned with roadway maintenance, which is proportional to vehicle weight and miles travelled. Robocars need to be taxed on a per vehicle-pound-miles travelled.

    4) Robocars need to record and report significant events. If there's a collision – the car would know it – and should transmit a beacon indicating so, until reset by competent authority. This is a means to discourage and/or bring to justice hit & run drivers. The "collision beacon" would be picked up and reported by vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) systems. Collection and analysis of collision telemetry information is crucial to improving performance of our roads, and our robo cars. Require the collection of this information as a condition for using our public roadways.

    5) I agree 100% that with robocars, and V2V/V2I systems, speeding and red light running are crimes that can disappear from our society – leading to a great reduction of the death toll of our roads (since reckless acts like driving and red light running kill thousands of people each year).

  3. Faith

    Will there be a market for cars that don't allow you to speed? Maybe if it comes with a substantial insurance discount, but I don't know that everyone would but one. Considering that red light cameras were struck down by the courts in MN, it seems that mandating GPS and speed controls would be problematic. This begs the question, why do cars even have the ability to go 90 mph? The only place that is legal is Montana.

    Inevitibly, everything breaks. Will the potential for accidents increase if people don't maintain the robotics in their car or their V2V technology? I know one of my neighbors has three junkers sitting out on the street. Yes, they still go from point a to b, but they have all been in accidents and not repaired. Would they quit paying attention while driving while using V2V? Likely. Would I trust them to keep their V2V in good repair and functioning properly? Not really.

    1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Faith.
      Will there be a market for cars that don't allow you to speed? There will be if they are the only cars available. This is why this feature needs to be mandated by regulatory agencies, rather than an optional feature.

      The question of whether electronic failure will eventually cause crashes and result in fatalities is a good one, but my money is that electronics will be far more reliable than humans.

  4. BB

    For the car

    Why not have a digital key pad and a FOB. Have a 8 digit pin number with a time changing 6 digit FOB. Or create a phone app.

    Then recall all the cars and they must install this gps box and pad,

    Flip the switch

    GPS ,identification verification (owner(s) is in charge of the driver list) pay taxes,911,60 min. cabin voice blackbox,data blackbox,enforcement.turn the car off,

    One day the will of the people will right the wrongs. Until then …

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