I Believe in a Future with No Car Accidents

on August 24, 2015

A little over a month ago, I was in an accident. It was not as bad as it could have been but was still worse than a little fender bender. It was my fault and several human factors contributed. The first was traffic. Traffic in Silicon Valley is at an all time amount of awful. What’s worst about it is how traffic will pick up then all of a sudden stop. My accident occurred under these circumstances. I was on a freeway I don’t normally drive during heavy traffic times and was not familiar with the heavy spots. Traffic had been a parking lot for several miles, when all of a sudden, it picked up as if there was no problem. I started to accelerate because it seemed as if the traffic issue was over. I had several car lengths of distance but not the recommended three-second distance. Suddenly, traffic came to a (literal) screeching halt. As I went to hit the brake my foot slipped and I hit the gas pedal instead. I hit the car in front of me.

A month before my lease was up on my work commuter car, I traded it in for brand new Prius. I was still adjusting to the new pedals which is why I think I didn’t hit the brake cleanly and my foot slipped. As with many accidents, it happened fast. My airbags deployed and rung my bell. I was going about 25-35 MPH. As I reflected on this experience, I realized just how big of a deal it will be when all cars on the road have sensors that can prevent such situations of human error and avoid accidents and, ultimately, avoid injury.

Many high end cars, like some from BMW and Mercedes, have sensors which will stop the car automatically if it believes it is going to have a collision and the human operator does not react in time. Commercials demonstrate these features using use cases like backing out of a driveway and the car stops before backing into a child passing by on the sidewalk on their bike. Or driving on a dark windy road and stopping before going head on into a fallen tree. But the use cases are seemingly infinite when it comes to accident avoidance due to human operator error, or most likely, lack of reaction time.

These sensors along with assisted breaking and, in some cases, assisted wheel control, have huge potential to make our roads safer. But a high level point to be made is all cars on the road need to have these sensors for maximum safety. Most of the use cases today help cut down on a single human error, primarily by braking for them to avoid collision. But unless all cars have this feature, we can’t avoid the mistakes of multiple humans. Even if my car stops to avoid me hitting the car in front, the car behind me can still hit me unless it also has sensors. Or a car that swerves off the road toward other cars can correct itself while all other cars around it make necessary speed adjustments. If all cars can talk to each other and visualize the world around them to make adjustments for human error, we may have a world free of accidents. Interestingly, this point of all cars needing to have sensors, cameras, CPUS/GPUs with visual processing power like ones being developed from companies like NVIDIA and Qualcomm, is true also of autonomous vehicles.

I was chatting with a friend who happens to be in the automobile industry and is close to autonomous car research at his company, and he was explaining to me one small proof of this. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, a fully autonomous car comes to market and I purchase one. For this car to have passed all regulatory restrictions it will have to have a number of road and traffic safety rules programmed into it. One would be the “three second safe following distance” rule. So I’d be driving down the road, at the speed limit, likely in one of the right lanes and the space front of me would be a three second gap to the car in ahead. As soon as a car (inevitably) pulls into the gap front of me, my car would automatically slow down to give a three-second gap to the new vehicle. You can see how this could cause issues for traffic behind me as well as slow my travel time down significantly. Now if all cars were autonomous, it would be a different story and, in this case, the three second rule would not need to exist. If all cars were autonomous and could talk to each other and make adjustments in real time, cars could travel down the road ver close together. Not only would we have no accidents, we would have no traffic jams. The downside in this is when you stop and think about how long it will take for all cars to have these sensors and all cars to be autonomous. Unfortunately, we are several decades away, at a minimum, from this reality.

Ultimately, the hybrid autonomous concept is likely to happen first. My car will be able to make decisions for me in many circumstances to avoid or minimize accidents. And, as long as there are cars on the road that are 100% controlled by humans, the risk of automotive accidents remain high. Then, in the future, accidents will be a thing of the past.