Op-ed: With Advanced Technology, Drivers Still Control Safety

Web Note: Deborah Hersman is president and CEO of the National Safety Council and former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Dan McGehee is associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and  director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa. The op-ed was published in the Sacramento Bee. Hersman and McGehee are attending the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco, CA.

Will new technologies help us eliminate these deaths and injuries and reverse this trend?

The answer depends on the choices we make today, how we talk about the role and purpose of these technologies and our ability to help drivers understand that they have the ultimate control and responsibility at the wheel. Today’s technologies are on the path to higher levels of automation in the cars of tomorrow, but we’re not there yet.

Each of these systems is based on the most common crash scenarios. Automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning and pedestrian detection were designed to help drivers at slower speeds, while lane keeping systems work best at higher speeds, generally above 45 mph.

These features all come with warnings about their limits. They are a backup, an extra set of eyes that may help if the driver cannot or does not react in time. But today, the driver is responsible for the safe handling of an automobile, not the technology.

Research shows that many drivers do not fully understand many of the safety features in their cars or how they function, even some that have been standard for years, such as anti-lock braking and tire pressure monitoring systems. A gap between the driver’s expectation and the technology capability is not surprising, given the explosion of new features being added to vehicles.

Contrary to news reports and marketing materials, the technologies available in today’s cars are not autonomous or self-driving. They simply provide advanced driver assistance.

Automobile manufacturers, technology companies, policymakers, car dealers and the media must be more careful about how we talk about these technologies. Self-driving vehicles may represent the most promising life-saving innovation in transportation in our lifetime, but getting to zero deaths will not happen overnight.

We need to carefully navigate the stepping stones to higher levels of automation one at a time. This means using the technology available in our vehicles today to improve safety on the roadways, but also understanding its limitations.