The federal government has announced it is formally working on safety regulations for self-driving cars, and this move clearly signals the age of autonomous transportation. It’s an exciting prospect – with the possibility of less traffic, greater efficiency, and a dramatic drop in highway deaths.
But the road to autonomous cars will be long and winding, and will likely exist along a continuum of autonomy for decades. With nearly 258 million cars on the road today, 17 million new cars being added each year in the U.S., and an average car lifespan of 11.5 years, it is difficult to imagine roadways busy with fully autonomous cars for some time to come.
No matter how fast and furious companies develop driverless technology as the history of driving technology evolves, it will be many years before a majority of the cars on the road are smart enough to drive themselves.
Instead, we will see a shifting mix for decades – from old cars, to cars with some autonomous features like collision warning systems, to fully autonomous vehicles. In the meantime, the need for smarter drivers is ever-increasing.
In fact, partial or part-time autonomy will likely add to the already dangerous and expanding list of driving distractions slated to be highlighted as part of Teen Driver Safety Week. For decades, distractions were limited to fiddling with the radio dial. Today, there are phone calls, texting, navigation apps, Snapchat, Spotify, Pokémon Go and countless other things enticing drivers of all ages to take their minds and eyes off the road. It is especially dangerous for young drivers with less road experience, limited emotional maturity and nagging fears of missing out on the last group message post (a.k.a. FOMO).
Statistics back this up. Research by AT&T finds a shockingly high 70 percent of drivers use their smartphones while driving, with four in 10 stating they are using them to post to social media sites like Facebook or Snapchat, and almost three in 10 to surf the web. How scary is that?
We saw over 35,000 road fatalities in the U.S. last year and over 4.4 million injuries -- the largest increase in traffic fatalities in 50 years despite gains in car safety features. And the trend lines are not moving in the right direction, as the first half of 2016 showed an increasingly alarming uptick to what the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has deemed a “crisis” level.
Fortunately, we know more than 94 percent of collisions and incidents are due to driver behavior, attitudes and choices. So, we’ve got more control than we think right now in the cars we’re currently driving. After all, it’s not as if the risks are secret – or complex.
The question is, why do we take senseless risks and how can we adjust? We need to be smarter, starting with modeling sensible behavior and mindfulness behind the wheel before we unwittingly pass along dangerous habits to kids in the back seat.
What do I mean by SMART? It's a helpful acronym to focus on five key and evolving factors contributing to safe driving behavior. Scan 360 to build up a total picture; Manage your attitudes and emotions; be Accountable for the choices you make; be Ready to respond to anything; and be Tuned in and focused on the drive.
Can we get smarter? Of course. Can we do it fast enough given the changing road landscape? We’re going to have to hustle. Current tendencies towards distraction and bad behaviors – coupled with the lure of a false sense of “auto pilot” security and the abrupt possibility of being urgently called back to the “helm” alone in the car or with precious cargo on board – makes the road to progress steeper.
The bottom line is cars may be getting smarter, but they’re not going to attain genius status any time soon, and road safety may get a lot trickier before it becomes trivial. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. We still have a long way to go and a big role to play as drivers. For a long time to come, the road to better and safer is still paved with smarter drivers.