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Technology in Self-Driving Cars Contributed to Uptick in 2015 Highway Fatalities

Self-driving cars are coming, but they aren’t here yet, despite driver-assistance systems like Tesla’s Autopilot that make it sound as though some cars can completely do away with the need for human participation. The notion of full autonomy simply isn’t accurate.

The number of traffic deaths in 2015 reached 35,092. That’s a significant jump from 2014’s total of 32,744. Some of the more-than-7-percent increase can be explained away by increases both in the number of cars on the road and total miles driven.

A recent MIT Technology Review story, however, lays some of the blame for the rise in traffic fatalities last year at the doorstep of the technology used in self-driving cars. Although the only empirical evidence the article offered to support its supposition was the death this past spring of a Florida man relying on his Tesla’s Autopilot technology, the conclusion that driver-assistance systems can lull drivers into paying less attention to surrounding traffic has merit.

Tesla-Related Death

Despite warnings in Tesla’s printed material that drivers should remain engaged when using Autopilot, all preliminary evidence of the May accident indicates the 40-year-old driver’s attention was somewhere other than on the road when the Autopilot system failed to recognize the side of an 18-wheeler’s trailer in its path. Submarining under the trailer, the car’s roof was ripped off before it careened off the road, mowing down two fences and coming to rest against a power pole. Authorities pronounced the driver dead at the scene.

The preliminary investigation determined the driver was distracted because he made no attempt to apply the brakes before the crash.

Distracted-Driving Deaths

According to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), traffic deaths from distracted driving grew nearly 9 percent last year. That’s more than the percentage increases of deaths from not wearing seat belts (4.9 percent) and alcohol (3.2 percent) combined.

Connecting the Dots

Citing the Tesla incident, the MIT Technology Review article argues there’s a cause/effect relationship between self-driving car technology and distracted driving. That could well be true.

As drivers become more confident with systems like frontal emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, which monitors traffic flow and applies the brakes when traffic slows, it’s natural they take for granted such systems will always function perfectly. Often, however, that’s simply not true.

Role of Driver-Assist Systems

Regardless of the driver-assist technology used, the system issues some sort of audible warning before initiating action. Why? Because these technologies are designed as backup systems in case the driver fails to respond to whatever danger is detected. They are driver-assistance technologies, not driver-replacement technologies. Or, in other words, they are semi-autonomous systems rather than autonomous systems.

What it means to you: As a driver, it’s up to you to be in total control. Crashes can happen in the blink of an eye. Any time your eyes aren’t on the road is an opportunity for something bad, or even fatal, to happen. Placing too much faith in self-driving cars can kill you or someone else.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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