TOKYO — Have you ever wondered: Who, really, needs a self-driving car?
"Safety," of course, is the big pitch, and the strongest argument, the automotive industry has trumpeted in its case for autonomous cars. The question now is how truly effective we expect Google cars, or any other self-driving cars, to be -- in terms of saving people's lives.
Marketing presentations for chips, software, and subsystems -- all supposedly designed to enable the building blocks of autonomous cars -- tend to start with a similar setup: a litany of depressing numbers illustrating how many people are needlessly killed every year in traffic accidents in the United States and worldwide.
So, there were no surprises there, when Google's director of safety for self-driving cars, Ron Medford, started his speech at ITS World Congress in Tokyo last week by running through a set of depressing slides repeating the familiar premise.
Ron Medford, Google's director of safety for self-driving cars, at ITS World Congress Tokyo
Considering Medford's previous position (he was the former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's deputy director until he was recruited by Google earlier this year), the figures he rattled off, based on 2011 numbers in the United States, were both scary and convincing:
Traffic accidents in the United States in 2011 (Source: NHTSA)
Causes for traffic accidents in the United States in 2011 (Source: NHTSA)
But his presentation made a surprising turn when Medford showed the following slide.
Death tolls in traffic accidents in the United States in 2011 (Source: NHTSA)
Of 32,367 people who died intraffic accidents in the United States in 2011, 54 percent of them were not wearing seat belts.
As he put it in his speech, "the best automotive safety technology ever invented" is the seat belt. And yet, in reality, people are still dying in droves simply because they forget (or refuse) to buckle up.
Medford's message was clear. Even the best automotive safety technology can't possibly save every life. The limit to the effectiveness of safety technology is the way people use it (or don't use it).
Between 1975 and 2011, Medford said, 292,471 lives were saved by seat belts. And yet, during the same period, 45 percent of people killed in front seats in passenger cars were wearing seat belts.
The same applies to child seats, according to Medford. Despite 9,874 lives saved between 1975 and 2011 because of child seats, 71 percent of infants and 54 percent of toddlers killed in accidents died in their child seats.
Thanks to Electronic Stability Control (ESC) -- required in all vehicles by 2011 -- fatality rates have been dropping. Still, in 2011, death tolls in ESC-equipped cars were 49 percent in single-vehicle accidents.
In short, sure, the safety expectation for self-driving cars is very high. But expecting it to be 100 percent effective isn't really realistic, concluded Medford. After all, every automotive safety measure has helped to reduce fatality rates, but none has proven to be 100 percent effective.
"I've heard people saying that one accident in a self-driving car will set back the technology for 10 years," said Medford. But in his opinion, that sort of unfair and impractical expectation can only harm, rather than advance, the development of technologies for autonomous cars.
So, we have been forewarned. Google cars will not result in zero fatalities on the road -- not now, not soon, not until you can get people out of cars entirely.