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Automated vehicles will make roads safer — they just need time to learn first

Automated vehicles will make roads safer — they just need time to learn first
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As the CEO of an organization that advances the research and deployment of intelligent transportation technologies to first and foremost save lives, the recent tragedies in Tempe and Mountain View demonstrate we must do a better job of ensuring the systems we seek to deploy will indeed create a safer world.

Before joining the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, I led two state departments of transportation. In those roles, I felt I was responsible for the well-being of every person traveling on the system. Sometimes — actually, too many times — bad things happened. The year before I went to the Colorado Department of Transportation, 451 people lost their lives on its roadways. Three years later, we had eclipsed 600. When I was at the U.S. Department of Transportation, we talked about moving toward zero deaths on American roadways. Sadly, my experience has been the exact opposite. 

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Many of these fatalities stay with me to this day. An entire family killed at an at-grade train crossing on their way to church. A young boy in Denver killed by an impaired driver who didn’t see him in time. Two Colorado state troopers killed in the line of duty, trying to keep other people safe on the highways. 



Those memories haven’t faded, nor has my feeling of responsibility for the system that took their lives. 

For the 10 years, I have been a senior leader in transportation in the United States, we have lost approximately 325,000 people on our roadways. I have always said that our job is to save lives and make people’s lives better. This loss of life is unacceptable.

We must do a better job. 

Automated vehicle technology is the best tool in our tool box to drastically reduce and potentially eliminate the 90 percent of crashes caused by human error.  As we have seen over the past few weeks, technology is not infallible. While we must study each of these fatalities, we must not forget that every day on average in the United States, 100 people lose their lives on our roadways. In 2016, 37,416 people died and this doesn’t account for serious injuries or lives of loved ones that will never be the same.  

Our members must redouble efforts to ensure any deployments of automated vehicles are safe. Private sector innovators — car and tech companies alike — along with research organizations, must work with government agencies to safeguard the public. We need a federal framework for automated vehicle development and deployment, as well as reinforced state and local roles. We must ensure transparency in industry practice.  We must allow these vehicles to drive the hundreds of millions of miles required to make them safer.  Automated vehicles are much like new drivers — they have a great capacity to learn, but they need experience. Just as a human driver improves with time, so too will automated vehicles. Unlike humans, however, they do not get distracted, they won’t fall asleep, and they will not drive under the influence. 

As our vehicles and our transportation systems become more connected, these vehicles will have greater awareness of roadway hazards, which is key to preventing crashes. Finally, we need a relentless focus on cybersecurity and privacy. 

We can have a better, safer future transformed by intelligent mobility. We can have a world in which cars don’t crash. The Colorado fatalities could have been prevented by the safe deployment of existing technology. We must learn from the recent tragedies, but we cannot lose sight of our goal to prevent future tragedies and save more lives.

Shailen Bhatt, former executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation and secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation, is president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.