Baby, can you drive my car?

Dummies.

Google’s driverless cars have clocked up more than 225,000km so far. Timothy Swinson/Wikimedia Commons
Since 1950, more than 150,000 people have died in motor vehicle crashes in Australia. The worst year was 1970, when 3,798 people lost their lives – more than 10 deaths each day.

Annual deaths are now below 1,400, despite the population almost doubling.

Significant progress has been made in the safety of roads and vehicles, and through the education and policing of road users, but there is clearly a long way to go.

Who’s to blame?

The Enhanced Crash Investigation study conducted by the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) found that in the majority of crashes that resulted in serious injury, the driver was a contributing factor.

Fatigue, distraction/inattention, inexperience, excessive speed and driver error were most often to blame.

So, given that humans are fundamentally fallible, is the next step to take control from the driver and allow technology to take over?

Self-driving cars

Google reported in September last year that it was developing self-driving cars and that a test vehicle had logged over 225,000km on the west coast of the US.

The only crash that occurred during the trial was a rear-end collision to one of the test vehicles while it was stopped at a set of traffic signals.

Although the trials involved a human driver and software specialist, who were there to provide assistance whenever necessary, the vehicles will soon develop to the point where the driver may not be required.

Implementation

With this in mind, should we turn our attention to optimising the road system to accommodate autonomous vehicles that travel in close-knit “platoons”?

There would certainly be benefits to safety and efficiency if we went down this route.

Travel speeds could be managed automatically to minimise both crash occurrence and the risk of injury if a (very rare) crash was to occur.

Smoother traffic flows would also come about, meaning improved fuel consumption and reduced emissions.

That said, it seems unlikely that we will give up our control of our cars without a fight: the automobile is firmly entrenched as a symbol of personal identity and freedom.

It’s difficult to imagine an autonomous vehicle inspiring the same passion if the only control we have is in selecting where we want the car to drive us.

A compromise?

One recent study by MUARC has found that the figure of 29,000 people killed and seriously injured on the roads each year in Australia could be reduced by 25-35% by implementing collision-avoidance technologies using Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC).

The system would equip vehicles with GPS and a high-speed radio unit to broadcast location information to surrounding vehicles.

A system of this kind has already been trialled in Australia and around the world in an attempt to reduce intersection crashes.

Crashes between vehicles at intersections cause up to 31% of serious casualties across Australia and closer to 50% in urban areas.

The in-vehicle DSRC application detects the approach speed and location of surrounding vehicles and determines whether a collision is likely to occur.

A mix of audio and visual warnings are provided to the driver, increasing in intensity as the time to collision becomes shorter.

These alarms allow the driver to brake and avoid a crash that would otherwise be inevitable due to obscured sight lines, driver distraction or red light-running by the other driver.

We think these measures could prevent about 9,000 serious casualties a year in Australia and could result in direct and indirect savings of around $3 billion annually.

At a crossroads

There is a way, then, to help eliminate a sizeable proportion of road trauma without having to give up control of our cars.

It will take a number of years and substantial commitment by vehicle manufacturers, government and research and commercial organisations before full benefits are realised.

But if we do go down this road it will be another step towards eliminating the enormous cost of road trauma that has been with us since the invention of the automobile.

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