NHTSA Data On Traffic Deaths Shows The Importance Of Automated Vehicle Technology

Fans of our blog know that I have a particular interest in developments relating to automated vehicle (“AV”) or “self-driving” technology and that technology’s interaction with product liability law.  You might say I am a true “believer” in the technology’s ability to save lives.  For a couple of my recent posts on the subject, please see here and here.  There’s been a fair amount of media coverage–indeed, criticism–of late about a couple of traffic accidents where automated vehicle technology may have been engaged. While the investigations into those incidents play out, there is an important backdrop that should not be lost: according to recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) data, motor vehicle traffic deaths increased by 7.7% from 2014 to 2015 (an estimated 35,200 people died in 2015, up from the 32,675 reported fatalities in 2014).  And, among those fatalities, there were “significant increases in motorcyclist and nonoccupant (pedestrian and pedalcyclist) deaths for the Nation in 2015 as compared to 2014.”

While there is no way to know for sure how many of the more than 35,000 deaths could have been prevented with “AV” technology, a stroll around your local auto dealer showroom floor will reveal more and more vehicle models with available pedestrian–and in some cases even cyclist–detection systems.  A recent article explains the technology in more depth–but in a nutshell, the systems use cameras or sensors with built-in algorithms to “see” pedestrians in the vehicle’s path and sound an audible and/or visual alert to the driver.  If the vehicle is also equipped with “autonomous braking,” the vehicle can automatically apply the brakes if the driver fails to take action.

In its press release accompanying the report, NHTSA describes a number of initiatives to reduce traffic deaths.  It is refreshing to see “promot[ing] the development of automated safety technologies” among them.  Indeed, NHTSA notes that “[i]n March, the Department of Transportation announced a key safety agreement with automakers requiring more than 99 percent of new vehicles to have automatic emergency braking standard by 2022.”

Time, of course, will tell the true impact of “AV” technology on auto-related deaths.  In the meantime, however, policymakers and regulators should be careful to avoid a “rush to judgment” based on isolated reports of “failures” in the technology.  Perhaps an appropriate cliché is to not “let perfect get in the way of better.”  Or, more closely related to product liability law, consider the risk-utility balancing test — do the risks of AV-technology outweigh its utility to motorists, pedestrians, cyclists–indeed, society as a whole? When you consider the number of lives that can be saved — against the number of asserted “failures” — the balance tips clearly in favor of AV technology.