If AVs are safer, why aren't we accelerating?

Emily Sunman Emily Sunman
Chief Legal & Risk Officer
Nial O'Brien Nial O'Brien
Roads Capability Leader
30 August 2022
6 min read

As history attests, humans have an unfortunate tendency to turn a blind eye to the greater good when focused on their own interest. In the mid-20th century, car manufacturers famously lobbied against safety advancements to maintain lower manufacturing costs, protect profit from sales or revenue from parts and repair work on damaged vehicles. It took companies like Volvo to make safety the core selling feature by redirecting their pitch from men to women (who now make more than 80 per cent of family car market decisions), for safety feature demands to reach fever pitch and fundamentally change the market.

Let's roll forward to present day as the car industry faces another dilemma with autonomous vehicles (AVs). Deemed to be much safer than vehicles driven by humans, the advancement of technology that removes drivers and much vehicle ownership means the car industry is at war with itself. Big historical players, who have always made money out of personalisation, style and brand fetish, face a future where people are more likely to rent AVs. Yet they'll be safer given the projected decrease in road accidents.

Just as the Jetsons thought we'd have flying cars by the year 2000, many of us thought we'd be safely chauffeured by autonomous vehicles by now. So, what's the hold-up? 

The case for AVs is clear 

The potential safety benefits of autonomous vehicles removing the need for human drivers is clear. AVs don't drink and drive, take drugs, get road rage, text while driving or jump red lights. They also don't grow tired, something that accounts for up to 25 per cent of serious and fatal road traffic accidents. Although deep learning is still in the early stages of acquiring reasoning and analysis, let's be honest, so are a lot of people on the roads. AVs can reduce risks and dangers by avoiding the failure of humans to pay attention, or make rational decisions when in control of a car. 

Human error such as being distracted or intoxicated is the probable cause in over 92 per cent of car crashes in the US, and replacing vehicles driven by human beings with autonomous vehicles could eliminate as many as one million global fatalities annually. According to a recent KPMG article, a mere 1 per cent reduction in road safety incidents would result in a cost reduction of more than US$ 8 billion annually (US only). 

An AV with electromagnetic brakes can stop in a third of the distance that traditional vehicles can by eliminating the one to two second reaction time for a human to start braking. However, until all vehicles have that capability, it cannot be deployed: a classic safety conundrum. 

The number of car accidents prevented relies on how AVs are programmed because they "need to not only perceive the world around them perfectly, they need to respond to what's around them as well," said Jessica Cicchino, one of the authors of an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study. If they are designed to drive and react like humans, there will be less crashes. 

AVs offer a huge opportunity to redeploy time and resources currently spent on road trauma victims to people who currently have little access to care due to economic, social or geographical reasons. This would go a long way to support the UN's SDG 3 to ensure equity in the health and well-being for all, and could be paid for by the billions of dollars saved by societies that have adopted AVs. 

So, while the case for safety is crystal clear, there are a few challenges the industry needs to overcome.

Legislation – friend or foe?

The technology and production of AVs continues to advance, and yet 250 pieces of legislation are required to change in order for an AV to cross Sydney's Harbour Bridge. It is reminiscent of the Red Flag Act which, according to one writer, "effectively stopped innovation in powered road transport in Britain for over a quarter of a century". Is so much legislation a barrier to innovation?

Historically, legislation is well known to drag behind technology. Take an electronic bank transfer as opposed to a cheque. The technology was ready for a long time before legislation caught up to allow it. The same is true for cryptocurrency, and it will be for AVs. But removing legislation from the picture isn't an option either. There should be a balance between safety and progress – it should not be done too quickly that we risk overlooking dangers, nor should it be done so slowly that it delays, or worse, stops development.

To help prepare for change, governments should outline what acceptable looks like, what standards and certifications should be met, and let the relevant sector innovate to achieve them.

In the US, regulators recently did away with the need for autonomous vehicles to be equipped with manual driving controls such as steering wheels or brake pedals to meet crash avoidance standards.

Earlier this year, Australia made the decision to determine autonomous legislation at a national level, rather than state-by-state, which paves the way for much quicker success. According to a 2020 KPMG report, Australia is one of only four countries receiving the highest score for its AV regulations, but more needs to be done. 

The AV industry is doing its own bit of lobbying with recent petitions to federal safety regulators to limit the amount of data required of them in the event of an AV crash, arguing that current requirements stand in the way of innovation.

The cost of innovation

The total global investment in AV technology exceeds $200 billion already. We are likely to see a shift from a car ownership model to an AV access model that has the potential to turn the industry on its head. New players or alliances will enter the market and some will simply disappear. 

The change needed to make AVs mainstream will only happen when industry applies enough pressure on government, or governments push change onto the industry. The Chinese government, for example, has set a goal for 10 per cent of new vehicles sold by 2030 to be fully autonomous. 

If a government sets the right incentives and enablers in place, the industry may be more motivated to help in achieving the same goal. For EVs, Norway boldly planted a stake in the ground by announcing in 2016 that they would not sell any combustion engines beyond 2025. It was one of the first countries to do this. However, more interestingly, in April 2022 there was not one sale recorded for a private combustion engine in the country – the forward-thinking Norwegians decided 3 years earlier than the deadline to implement change – Gratulerer Norge! 

While the technology is within our reach, safety features, social acceptance and legislation are still developing. Autonomous vehicles are a means to an end – the goal being to save lives. Lobbying in all directions will not help its cause. We need to be able to accept and even demand the latest developments, so that traditional vehicles are far more capable of being ready to mix with full AVs when they arrive. Without collaboration, AVs might remain on the test track for a long time to come. 

When Volvo waived its patent rights to the three-point seatbelt we still use today, it was so everybody could benefit. In business, good ethics pay. Time will tell who is going to emerge as the Volvo in the AV age. 


Emily Sunman
Written by
Emily Sunman

Nial O'Brien
Written by
Nial O'Brien

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