Alphabet’s Waymo subsidiary and chipmaker Intel have launched separate campaigns to promote autonomous driving technology. While Intel seems to be going it alone and focusing on TV ads with celebrities like LeBron James, Waymo has partnered with several safety and advocacy groups for its campaign, which seems more aimed at starting a conversation using the hashtag #letstalkselfdriving than pushing out its message via ads, at least for now. Waymo is an obvious company to be pushing the technology given that autonomy is its raison d’être and it has its own cars on the street in various markets, while Intel is clearly aiming for the same kind of indirect approach it took to its famous “Intel Inside” campaigns back in the day. These are, after all, mostly awareness campaigns at this point – there’s nothing any consumer could buy after seeing the efforts from either campaign, and most consumers aren’t even aware of regulatory efforts in this area yet either. But both campaigns are clearly aware of broad skepticism shown in recent surveys about autonomous driving and want to start the education process early. Waymo’s campaign is particularly focused on the accessibility and safety benefits and its partners – which include an organization serving the blind and another serving seniors. That gels well with the NHTSA stats I shared earlier today, which demonstrated again the potential safety benefits of a computer not prone to alcohol use, speeding, or distraction driving a car.
The US Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have released data on fatal motor vehicle crashes during 2016 (a fuller report is available here while the link below is to a summary press release). The total number of fatalities (which includes drivers and passengers in vehicles as well as pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists) was 37,461, up 5.6% after a larger rise in 2015, but following a long decline in overall fatality rates from the 1960s onwards. As in prior years, what the NHTSA describes as “human choices” such as not using seatbelts, driving while drunk, sleepy, or distracted, or speeding, continued to be a major cause. Remarkably, nearly half of in-vehicle fatalities were among people not wearing seatbelts, and nearly a third of fatalities occurred where the driver was under the influence of alcohol.
One of the rallying cries of the autonomous driving movement is always that it should dramatically reduce these fatalities, which are arguably already very low at just over one fatality per 100 million miles. Given the contribution of human choices like alcohol use, speeding, and distraction to the totals, that seems likely to be true if autonomous technology can at least match the performance of human drivers on the fundamentals of driving. On the other hand, given that the vast majority of cars on the road will still be human-driven even once autonomous cars start arriving, things like increased seatbelt use (currently at around 90% of vehicle occupants) would make a much bigger difference in the near term.
The article linked below discusses several recent studies conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other bodies, which provide substantial evidence that advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) like lane departure warnings and blind spot detection are preventing crashes and saving lives. This is notable because autonomous driving technology is widely expected to reduce crashes significantly, but is likely years away, while traditional car manufactures have been working for years on ADAS technology, and that’s already having a positive impact. That’s great validation for the strategy of most vehicle manufactures working in parallel on improving and broadening ADAS while simultaneously working on autonomy, because it suggests the former efforts are providing real benefit today, while autonomy is still years away. It’s also going to be very helpful for those trying to get regulatory approval for autonomous systems to be able to point to these results as evidence of the broader claims. Crucially, however, ADAS augments the driver’s own skills and awareness rather than replacing the driver, whereas intermediate autonomous technologies introduce scenarios in which drivers either can or may be tempted to pay less attention to the driving task, which can actually create new risks. The key in developing autonomous technology will be to implement methods to keep drivers attentive so that they act appropriately even as the tech in the car increasingly takes over.