With advanced technology, drivers still control safety

An employee drives a Tesla Model S, equipped with autopilot hardware and software, hands-free on a highway in October 2015.
An employee drives a Tesla Model S, equipped with autopilot hardware and software, hands-free on a highway in October 2015. Bloomberg News

Automotive industry leaders, scientists and engineers are gathered in San Francisco for the Automated Vehicle Symposium this week, after the recent death of a Tesla driver fueled a growing debate over the benefits of advanced vehicle technologies.

Some, including the California Department of Motor Vehicles, are calling for regulations that would prohibit the testing of driverless cars with no humans onboard. Others point to the life-saving promise of such technologies. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that more than 10,000 lives a year could be saved if all vehicles were equipped with four technologies available today: lane departure prevention, forward collision mitigation, blind spot detection and adaptive headlights.

These technologies are more important than ever. In 2015, an estimated 3,250 Californians died in car crashes, a 5 percent increase over the previous year. Across the country, traffic deaths were up 8 percent in 2015, and they appear to be going even higher this year.

Will new technologies help us eliminate these deaths and injuries and reverse this trend?

The answer depends on the choices we make today, how we talk about the role and purpose of these technologies and our ability to help drivers understand that they have the ultimate control and responsibility at the wheel. Today’s technologies are on the path to higher levels of automation in the cars of tomorrow, but we’re not there yet.

Each of these systems is based on the most common crash scenarios. Automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning and pedestrian detection were designed to help drivers at slower speeds, while lane keeping systems work best at higher speeds, generally above 45 mph.

These features all come with warnings about their limits. They are a backup, an extra set of eyes that may help if the driver cannot or does not react in time. But today, the driver is responsible for the safe handling of an automobile, not the technology.

Research shows that many drivers do not fully understand many of the safety features in their cars or how they function, even some that have been standard for years, such as anti-lock braking and tire pressure monitoring systems. A gap between the driver’s expectation and the technology capability is not surprising, given the explosion of new features being added to vehicles.

Contrary to news reports and marketing materials, the technologies available in today’s cars are not autonomous or self-driving. They simply provide advanced driver assistance.

Automobile manufacturers, technology companies, policymakers, car dealers and the media must be more careful about how we talk about these technologies. Self-driving vehicles may represent the most promising life-saving innovation in transportation in our lifetime, but getting to zero deaths will not happen overnight.

We need to carefully navigate the stepping stones to higher levels of automation one at a time. This means using the technology available in our vehicles today to improve safety on the roadways, but also understanding its limitations.

Deborah Hersman is president and CEO of the National Safety Council and former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board and can be contacted at Daniel McGehee is director of transportation and vehicle safety research at the University of Iowa and can be contacted at