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Partially Automated Vehicles are Already Here and Saving Lives and Money

Nearly all motor vehicle manufacturers offer driver warning technologies and partial automation systems to lessen the severity of vehicle crashes. Adoption of these driver assistance technologies is usually voluntary rather than driven by regulations. In a new policy brief, researchers assessed the costs and benefits of the technologies. They concluded that the systems provide individual and societal benefits that far exceed the costs of the technology. Equipping all vehicles with these technologies, they estimate, would result in billions of dollars in annual savings as well as reductions in fatalities. The brief offers policy suggestions, including measures to encourage faster adoption of the technologies.

The analysis, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), was published as a policy brief by the Traffic 21 Institute, a transportation research institute at CMU.

Over the last few decades, numerous vehicle manufacturers have begun to offer a variety of driver warning technologies as well as partial automation systems to avoid crashes. Driver warning systems provide audio, visual, and/or haptic information to the driver when a potentially dangerous situation is detected (e.g., front-end collision), whereas partial automation systems take action (e.g., braking) to avoid a collision without driver interaction. Some of these technologies are offered as options available for additional charges, while others (e.g., backup cameras) tend to be standard. Recently, many automakers have made a voluntary commitment to make automatic emergency braking, a partial automation system, a standard feature in most cars by 2022.

“Despite additional costs, these technologies reduce the frequency and severity of crashes, saving lives and money for individual drivers and for society,” says Stan Caldwell, Executive Director of CMU’s Traffic 21 Institute and Mobility 21, who coauthored the brief.

“While new vehicles often come with these technologies, many older vehicles do not,” adds Corey Harper, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at CMU’s Heinz College, who coauthored the brief. “It is estimated that it will take 10 years to raise adoption of the technologies from 40% to 80% of registered vehicles, and the slow diffusion of safety technologies presents a safety, policy, and equity challenge since higher-cost vehicles tend to incorporate these systems first.”

Researchers assessed the economic feasibility of fleet-wide use of three warning system technologies: forward collision, lane departure, and blind spot systems. They examined insurance data on changes in the frequency and severity of crashes for vehicles with these systems, using information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The authors estimated the cost of equipping light-duty vehicles with these three systems to be $575 per vehicle. The total cost of equipping all registered light-duty vehicles with these technologies would be $16 billion.

While the net benefits per vehicle of adding the three technologies are modest (about $360 per year), the benefits of equipping the entire vehicle fleet would be more significant.

With 100% use, the combination of all three technologies could prevent or reduce the severity of as many as 1.6 million crashes, including 7,200 fatal crashes. This translates into a net societal benefit of about $20 billion. Universal use of active braking systems would increase that number.

“Our estimate of the societal benefits of fleet-wide use of the three technologies comes from reducing crashes,” says Chris Hendrickson, Emeritus Professor of Engineering at CMU’s Heinz College, another coauthor of the brief. “About a quarter of the 6.3 million crashes reported to police each year are relevant to at least one of the three technologies.”

Based on their analysis, the authors made the following recommendations:

  1. Regulatory authorities should guarantee that the automotive industry adopt a common nomenclature for driver assistance technologies.
  2. Policymakers should encourage vehicle manufacturers to offer driver assistance standard packages, through either inducement or regulatory action, to speed adoption of this technology.
  3. Regulatory agencies should monitor the market penetration and effectiveness of specific driver assistance technologies to target those that are most successful at reducing crashes.
  4. Researchers should study how to improve the performance of driver assistance technologies, particularly human-computer interfaces and behavioral adoption, and how to increase the societal benefits of driver assistance technologies. They should also study how these technologies can interface and augment each other in applications such as cooperative automation.
  5. National crash datasets should incorporate more detailed information on automation systems to make it easier to assess how specific technologies affect crash and fatality rates.

The research was funded by Mobility21, a USDOT funded University Transportation Center and the Hillman Family Foundation through a grant to Traffic21 Institute. 


Summarized from a policy brief by the Traffic 21 Institute, Driver Warning Technologies and Partial Vehicle Automation: Save Lives and Money by Caldwell, S (Carnegie Mellon University), Harper, C (Carnegie Mellon University), Hendrickson, C (Carnegie Mellon University), and Samaras, C (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright August 2021 Traffic 21, Carnegie Mellon University. All rights reserved.

About Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy
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