Connected cars show promise
Vehicles that communicate with other cars and the environment may reduce crashes
Last week, the CEO of Tesla Motors announced plans to produce, by the end of next year, a car that can drive itself across country and also said that his company has begun equipping all new vehicles with selfdriving hardware. It’s an aggressive and optimistic effort, especially given the many obstacles in the way of realizing autonomous cars, including today’s technology, safety regulations, cost to buyers, public interest and laws. We believe it will take another decade or two — or more — before such cars are on the roadways in significant numbers.
Many drivers will resist being herded into autonomous vehicles. From our experience, it seems drivers in the Baltimore area would likely not wish to ride in an autonomous vehicle obeying a 55 mile per hour speed limit, and it’s unlikely the government or the insurance industry would support programming vehicles to break the speed limit. Questions of liability in a crash are also likely to deter early adopters. (Note: We don’t call them “accidents,” and neither should you.) And how will autonomous vehicles facing a crash scenario react? Will they be programmed to calculate the likely severity of damage when choosing between actions?
Managing a road network with mixed driver-operated and autonomous vehicles will be complicated, and a major reduction in crashes — most of which are caused by human error — will not happen until just about all vehicles are autonomous or connected. Connected vehicles (CV) are not autonomous, but they do communicate with each other and the roadway, compensating for a distracted driver. They could provide a helpful intermediate step to full autonomy. The National Highway Transportation Safety Alliance already estimates that such connected cars could reduce crashes by 80 percent for non-impaired operators, saving many lives. Such a reduction in crashes will also drastically reduce the resulting congestion that frequently slows our commutes to a crawl.
We and our colleagues recently conducted a national online survey asking drivers, based on their current knowledge of safety technologies, what their acceptance of and willingness-to-pay for CV technologies would be. Our survey attracted 529 responses, and the analyses showed that while consumer acceptance of CV technologies was high, expected prices for the technologies were a significant constraint toward purchasing them.
CV technologies are not yet available for mass consumption, but sensor-based safety technologies are in higher-end vehicles today. Of those technologies, drivers considered the collision package (front, side, all-around collision warning) to have the highest appeal. Interestingly, older women and young men appear less attracted to CV technologies overall, perhaps because the mature women are less technology-oriented, and young men tend to be less safetyconscious than other age groups.
The survey findings have immediate implications regarding the promotion of CV technologies to a diverse population. Price is a serious barrier to CV technology proliferation, but we expect prices to come down with innovation, production and marketing. The automobile industry should make low-cost options and common standards a priority for more collision warning technology in the marketplace. Government safety agencies should showcase CV technologies’ safety benefits to media that cater to mature women and at family-oriented public events. Agencies may want to incorporate CV technologies within the various safety programs targeted toward young male drivers.
While autonomous vehicles stimulate the imagination, many components have to fall in place before we see them in abundance on our roadways. In the interim, CV may take us where we need to go and the state should accommodate them.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc., introduced the Model X car at the company’s California headquarters last year. The vehicle has a semi-autonomous autopilot mode. Mr. Musk announced plans this month to develop a fully autonomous car by the end of next year.