NTSB Chairman: Driverless Cars Could Save 32,000 Lives a Year

By Joe Setyon | July 1, 2016 | 1:01 PM EDT

A line of self-driving Google cars parked outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. (AP photo)

 

(CNSNews.com) National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Christopher Hart discussed the development of driverless cars Wednesday, saying that they “can save many, if not most of the 32,000 lives that are lost every year on our streets and highways.”

Hart was speaking at a National Press Club luncheon, where he highlighted the positives of autonomous cars, while also noting the complications that they could bring.

“Driverless cars are coming, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “And their potential for improvement is absolutely amazing. First and foremost, driverless cars can save many, if not most of the 32,000 lives that are lost every year on our streets and highways.”

He added that “driverless cars could increase the amount of traffic our roads could safely carry, because instead of maintaining a car-length separation for every 10 miles an hour, as I’m sure we all do, driverless cars could reduce that separation.”

Hart also talked about how automating cars would also decrease the reliance on humans in the nation’s transporation system, which he acknowledged could be both good and bad.

“Most crashes on our roads are due to driver error,” he pointed out. And with “no driver, there will be no driver error.” Driverless cars would address issues like “fatigue, distraction, impairment and fitness for duty,” as well as improve “collision avoidance technologies.”

However, there are potential downsides as well, he pointed out.

“What if the automation quits or fails? Will it fail in a way that is safe?” Hart asked. Even without a human operator, “humans are still involved” in designing and maintaining autonomous vehicles, providing “opportunity for human error,” he said.

Moreover, the NTSB chairman thinks that the automation process will be more complicated than people think.  

When asked what scares him the most about autonomous cars, Hart responded that “people are wildly underestimating the complexity of bringing automation into the system.” He called it “unnerving” but expressed excitement at the “great opportunity to help” by applying the NTSB’s experience with automated aviation “to help it happen better in this mode.”

Hart believes that driverless cars could improve safety, but knows that there will be bumps along the road.

“There will be fatal crashes, that’s for sure,” he said. But the trend towards automating cars is “not going to be stopped by a crash here and there, and especially because it’s still probably happening at a lower rate than when it happens without automation.”

Despite the challenges, Hart says that driverless cars could have a huge impact on infrastructure and society. They could change the way we look at learning how to drive, as well as individual car ownership itself.

“There are so many potential variations on that theme that I couldn’t even begin to know where this exciting concept is going to go,” he said.

Last month, Volvo conducted a survey to gauge whether or not the public is ready for driverless cars.

It found that 90 percent of New York respondents and 86 percent of Californians “feel that autonomous cars could make life easier.” Across the nation, 69 percent of participants said they think autonomous cars would improve traffic safety.

Though respondents expressed varying levels of personal readiness for driverless cars, 90 percent of Americans also “believe governments and local authorities are slow to plan for autonomous cars.”