Opinion: Stop bashing self-driving cars

Mike Deittrick
"Cars on the roads today are already leveraging some of the same safety technologies that define the fully-automated driving experience."

A headline-grabbing start to an autonomous vehicle testing program is raising fresh concerns about self-driving cars.

Since Waymo, a Google spin-off, launched its driverless car pilot program in 2017, more than 20 incidents of vandalism have taken place on these vehicles, according to the New York Times. From slashed tires to being run off the road, this heated public backlash is shining an intense spotlight on the cultural changes that lie ahead as Americans begin encountering this new technological phenomenon. But we must remember, disruptive change isn’t always bad.

Despite our nation’s obsession with technology, the greatest challenge when it comes to autonomous vehicles is Americans’ fundamental mistrust of the entire concept. We still simply can’t imagine taking our hands off the wheel and letting the vehicle do the driving. In fact, according to a recent study by AAA, only 20 percent of those polled report that they’d feel comfortable riding in a driverless vehicle. But their trepidations are largely borne out of a fear of the unknown.

It comes as no surprise that driver, passenger and pedestrian safety tops our list of fears when it comes to autonomous vehicles. However, of the more than 35,000 U.S. deaths in motor vehicle accidents in 2015, 94 percent of these serious crashes were caused by human error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Even with hands-free driving, people talking on their cellphones can overlook or miss up to 50 percent of their surroundings, including pedestrians and red lights, according to the National Safety Council. And incredibly, a recent AAA study found that drivers are distracted up to 27 seconds after they finish sending a voice text.

On the other hand, of the more than five million self-driven miles Waymo’s vehicles have logged to date, only 30 minor accidents have taken place and just one was found to be the fault of the vehicle. Human error caused the other 29 incidents.

Autonomous vehicles expertly read their environs while processing massive amounts of data far beyond the capacities of the human brain. Informed by data science and machine learning, driver-assist capabilities virtually remove the human factors that heighten highway dangers. Sensors and high-definition cameras capture real-time, 3D images that understand the context of travelers’ intentions and react to changing situations in a fraction of the time it takes people to respond.

The majority of cars on the roads today are already leveraging some of the same safety technologies that define the fully-automated driving experience. Today’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems include Forward Collision Warning, Auto Emergency Braking, Lane Keeping Assist and Blind Spot Monitoring. Seven in 10 car owners say they want these technologies in their next car and would recommend them to others, according to AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety.

In addition to the safety benefits, autonomous vehicles will serve as mobile platforms that greatly enrich the driver and passenger travel experience. Parking garages, restaurants and other businesses will project their availability to customers in transit through AI-driven apps. Shopping, tourism, commuting and other data will be imported into vehicles in ways we can hardly imagine today, empowering travelers to customize their transportation experiences to personally suit their unique needs and tastes. When driving past a museum, for example, the vehicle will recognize it and ask if you want more information on visiting.

As Detroit gears up to host the North American International Auto Show this month, let us not forget the profoundly transformational change that served to define the Motor City more than 100 years ago. The cultural shift from horse and buggy to automobile initially inspired widespread public safety concerns. We all know how that story turned out! Rather than fearing autonomous vehicles, let’s embrace the disruption and explore the tremendous promise of a safer and more satisfying future in automotive travel.

Mike Deittrick is the senior vice president of digital strategy and chief digital officer at DMI, a global leader in mobility solutions and business transformation.