Autonomous vehicles: increasing road safety?

The increase of autonomous vehicles will affect road safety and traffic planning (© Chesky_W)

The first known death caused by a self-driving car was disclosed by Tesla Motors in June 2016. An incident that, if we believe the media, is sure to cause consumers to second-guess the trust they put in the booming autonomous vehicle industry. That does not prevent Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, from publishing his ‘Master Plan, Part Deux’, in which he inter alia announced the expansion of Tesla’s self-driving electric vehicle product line to all major segments, including busses and trucks. In addition to that, he is also planning to establish a ‘Tesla shared fleet’ – self-driving taxis customers can order via app. The time frame for his master plan? Just two to three years. If Musk succeeds with his ideas, we will witness massive impacts on traffic, infrastructure and road safety – especially in urban areas.

What are the consequences for the cities?

Tesla’s ambitious plan cannot mask the fact that the technology of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is in its infancy. At this stage, the driver still has to have the obligation to take over control of the vehicle in situations that it cannot handle yet. However, the technology definitely has the potential to make mobility for all road users safer. Let’s have a look at the numbers. The first fatal accident with an AV occurred after 130 million miles driven on Autopilot. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, however, one person dies every 100 million miles driven with a conventional vehicle in the United States. Worldwide there even is a fatality approximately every 60 million miles. 3,561 people die as a result of road traffic collisions in the world every single day. That corresponds to 1.3 cruise ships or 6,8 full Airbus A380.

Cities are affected disproportionately: 70% of road crashes occur in the urban environment. Should cities thus embrace AVs? Could that help them to reduce fatalities? And how would an AV-friendly city have to look like? An insight to many of these questions can be found in the work we do at PTV Group. In partnering with automotive industries and city governments around the world, we develop simulations where the automotive industry can test sensors and algorithms, in a virtual world within realistic cities’ traffic and behaviors. In partnership with cities, we can better understand the full impact of such systems.

The need for governments to deal with AVs and their consequences is something that should be on every authority’s transportation department forefront. It is currently difficult to truly understand how they will affect their whole operations. And it is still unclear for many if AVs are a good or a bad development.

The need for adapted infrastructure

Many are focusing on the maintenance issue: how can we ensure that the road is maintained and appropriate for AVs? Does it mean that a worn out lane marking might cause an accident that we, as an authority, will be liable for? Or should vehicles be able to cope with such inconsistencies? We have to understand that all our road infrastructures have been designed for humans and humans have emotions – machines and technology don’t. So there needs to be a complete reverse of how the infrastructure will be developed. Should we change to design infrastructure for machines and sensors? Many believe we should and are moving in that direction.

But think of the possibilities that redesigning such systems could have, the new opportunities we could create. We could, for example, develop invisible controlled junctions that could be slot-based enabling vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, etc. crossing each in perfect harmony. This would mean stopping during a journey might be a thing of the past. To enable this we will not only have speed limits but also acceleration and deceleration limits to ensure a smooth operation and safety for all road users.

No more car accidents thanks to AVs? Probably not!

But safety is a priority and there is an understandable reluctance in adopting things as there is a significant difference between a world with all autonomous vehicles and a transition period with mixed modes. Will this transition period lead to a state of chaos? Most likely not. But there will be new challenges. How will vulnerable road users such as pedestrians or cyclists have to deal with them? Many manufacturers are already developing solutions to enable visual feedback to vulnerable road users on their status with the vehicle, for example a lit green led lighting, to mark that the vehicle has detected a presence.

PTV has been in the business of safety for over 25 years now. Since 2002 the German police is using our software PTV Vistad to register around 1.6 million accidents a year. And with PTV Visum Safety we give traffic planners all around the world a tool to analyse crash data and to integrate safety aspects into their strategic planning. We have an in-depth understanding that even though 90% of accidents are said to be caused by human behavior, many are not caused by the driver of a vehicle but rather by the vulnerable road user himself. So it is clear that autonomous vehicles will not be able to achieve zero accidents. Nevertheless, they will get us significantly closer to that target. Especially when combined with new technologies, smart mobility solutions and apps that are going to be part of city day-to-day living, they will ensure a safer environment. And safer roads will not only save lives but also money. 1,436,600,000,000 $ – those are the annual costs of safety that had to be spent in 2013 because of road traffic crashes. A number so incredibly big you might even have trouble reading it out loud.

The crash involving the Tesla autopilot is very sad. However, I believe it will evolve the technology required to ensure that it will be fit for purpose and robust. This still means that cities should not be afraid to embrace the future, it will make them safer, more environmentally friendly, and more livable while still pursuing economic growth.

>> Are you interested in learning the latest findings on road safety aspects? Then I highly recommend you our free White Paper ‘How can you bring your Vision Zero to life?’ with facts, figures and interviews with representatives from OECD, the World Bank, city authorities and research institutes.

This post is also available in: German