Automakers keep pitching a technological fix to our current traffic safety crisis when the real solution is much simpler
Ford announced today that it’s exploring “new smartphone-based communications technology” to warn drivers about pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable road users that may be hidden from their view. This follows a request for information from the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) on the possibility of using similar communication technology as “warning systems for both drivers and [vulnerable road users].”
The underlying message of both of these announcements is that technology can help slow or even reserve the dramatic rise in road deaths in the US. Traffic fatalities hit a 20-year high in early 2022, with officials blaming the pandemic for causing more reckless driving behavior. And technology, that amorphous panacea to so many of life’s problems, is seen as a potential solution.
But of course, the real answer is much simpler than that: just make the cars go slower.
Much of the mythos the auto industry has built up around itself involves the freedom to go anywhere you want as fast as you want. So, naturally, the car companies aren’t going to embrace slower cars as an obvious solution to the epidemic of rising vehicle fatalities. Instead, they will launch expensive research projects with academic stakeholders to develop some sort of nebulous technological workaround to the problem of dangerous driving and poorly designed infrastructure.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to technology that makes driving safer, but I’m not convinced that the auto industry has the right kind of technology in mind. Ford, for example, has been beating the same drum for a while now — the idea that there is a type of communication technology that allows cars to communicate with pedestrians’ smartphones in a way to reduce fatal collisions.
This is what Ford envisions as a potential solution:
The concept smartphone app running on a pedestrian’s phone uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) messaging to communicate their location to a connected Ford vehicle. If the vehicle calculates a potential crash risk, Ford SYNC® can alert drivers by the in-vehicle screen showing graphics of pedestrians, bicyclists or more with audio alerts sounding. Ford, Commsignia, PSS, Ohio State University, T-Mobile and Tome Software are demonstrating the technology at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America’s World Congress in Los Angeles this week.
Ford doesn’t come right out and say it, but what it’s talking about is called V2X, or vehicle-to-everything communication. Broadly speaking, V2X allows vehicles to send and receive messages about road conditions, like speeding cars, weather, or traffic congestion. Theoretically, it could also help prevent crashes by using that information to make decisions, like applying emergency braking.
In this particular case, Ford’s idea is to bombard the driver with in-vehicle alerts when an unseen pedestrian is at risk of being run over. And likewise, the same technology would alert the pedestrian or cyclist or scooter rider to the approaching vehicle. Alerting both parties to a possible collision is, in Ford’s view, exactly what it would take to avoid a tragic outcome.
Except it doesn’t exactly work that way, according to safety experts. Some pedestrians or cyclists don’t always have their smartphones with them, or if they do, they don’t constantly monitor them for alerts about approaching vehicles. Also, smartphone usage tends to be lower in low-income communities where a disproportionate number of crashes occur already.
Likewise, some drivers are annoyed by all the alerts they receive inside their vehicle and tend to ignore them. Or they become overly reliant on the alerts, which can lead to more careless driving.
“You don’t want people thinking they don’t have to look for pedestrians,” Sally Flocks, executive director of the Atlanta-based advocacy group PEDS, told Streetsblog in 2019, the last time Ford proposed a V2X solution to traffic safety. “I’m not opposed to the technology. I just don’t think it will solve the pedestrian safety problem.”
USDOT seems to think it has some merit in the technology. In a recent request for information, the department notes that intersections are proving to be especially dangerous, with 27 percent of traffic deaths in 2020 occurring at roadway crossings. It wants to know whether there’s some role that new technologies can play in reducing these deaths, including “vehicle automation, machine vision, perception and sensing, vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications, sensor fusion, image and data analysis, artificial intelligence (AI), path planning, and real-time decision-making.”
These technologies may play some role in helping reduce traffic deaths. I can’t argue with that. But I do wonder whether the federal government — and certainly the auto industry — is missing the forest for the trees by putting so much emphasis on technological innovations to a problem with a much simpler solution.
Pass laws to make the cars go slower. Improve intersections and change the street design to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists over the unimpeded flow of car traffic. Install speed cameras and other regulatory tools. Basically, make life harder for motorists.
That’s what Helsinki and Oslo did, two of Europe’s smaller capitals, and they’ve been rewarded with dramatic reductions in traffic deaths. By making it more difficult to use a car in the city, officials in Oslo have seen multiple years go by with zero traffic fatalities. The city imposed congestion pricing and other tolls, as well as increased parking fees, to make it more expensive to drive. It reduced speed limits across the city and installed “heart zones” where driving is banned in areas around schools.
In the absence of a nationwide initiative, some states are looking to force car companies to better comply with safety rules. A new bill in the New York State Senate, for example, would require all new cars registered in the state to have speed-limiting technology by 2024 — though it’s unclear whether the state has the authority to mandate this type of technology. (The federal government, not individual states, is generally tasked with regulating auto-safety standards.)
Even a modest drop in speed can spell the difference between life and death. A 2010 study and analysis conducted by England’s Transport Research Lab found that risk of fatality in a 30 mph crash was 3 percent for front impact and 25 percent for side impact. At 40 mph, that risk increased to 17 percent and 85 percent, respectively.
To be sure, USDOT is not casting about for technological salvation in isolation. The department is also interested in similar regulatory and design changes to reduce speeding and improve safety, directing billions of dollars to “complete street” projects in all 50 states.
But the message from the auto industry is almost exclusively around high-tech fixes to the current crisis. The only automaker I can think of in recent years that has even broached the subject of speed limiters is Volvo, which made the controversial decision several years ago to cap the speed of all new vehicles at 112 mph (180 km/h).
Volvo said the decision was based on the goal of achieving “zero traffic fatalities and injuries” in the future. But it’s going to take much slower speeds and more buy-in from the auto industry if we’re ever going to get there.