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I Believe In a Future With No Car Accidents

As long as there are cars on the road that are 100 percent controlled by humans, the risk of automotive accidents will remain high.

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A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

A little over a month ago, I was in an accident. It was not as bad as it could have been, but was still worse than a little fender-bender. It was my fault, and several human factors contributed. The first was traffic. Traffic in Silicon Valley is at an all-time amount of awful. What’s worst about it is how traffic will pick up, then all of a sudden stop.

My accident occurred under these circumstances. I was on a freeway that I don’t normally drive during heavy traffic times, and was not familiar with the heavy spots. Traffic had been a parking lot for several miles, when all of a sudden it picked up as if there was no problem. I started to accelerate, because it seemed as if the traffic issue was over. I had several car lengths of distance, but not the recommended three-second distance. Suddenly, traffic came to a (literal) screeching halt. As I went to hit the brake, my foot slipped, and I hit the gas pedal instead. I hit the car in front of me.

A month before my lease was up on my work commuter car, I traded it in for a brand-new Prius. I was still adjusting to the new pedals, which is why I think I didn’t hit the brake cleanly and my foot slipped. As with many accidents, it happened fast. My airbags deployed and rang my bell. I was going about 25 to 35 miles per hour. As I reflected on this experience, I realized just how big of a deal it will be when all cars on the road have sensors that can prevent such situations of human error and avoid accidents and, ultimately, avoid injury.

Many high-end cars, like some from BMW and Mercedes, have sensors that will stop the car automatically if it believes it is going to have a collision and the human operator does not react in time. Commercials demonstrate these features using use cases like backing out of a driveway and the car stops before backing into a child passing by on the sidewalk on their bike. Or driving on a dark, windy road and stopping before going head-on into a fallen tree. But the use cases are seemingly infinite when it comes to accident avoidance due to human operator error or, most likely, lack of reaction time.

These sensors along with assisted braking and, in some cases, assisted wheel control, have huge potential to make our roads safer. But a high-level point to be made is all cars on the road need to have these sensors for maximum safety. Most of the use cases today help cut down on a single human error, primarily by braking for them to avoid collision. But unless all cars have this feature, we can’t avoid the mistakes of multiple humans. Even if my car stops to avoid me hitting the car in front, the car behind me can still hit me unless it also has sensors. Or a car that swerves off the road toward other cars can correct itself while all other cars around it make necessary speed adjustments. If all cars can talk to each other and visualize the world around them to make adjustments for human error, we may have a world free of accidents. Interestingly, this point of all cars needing to have sensors, cameras, CPUS/GPUs with visual processing power, is true also of autonomous vehicles.

I was chatting with a friend who happens to be in the automobile industry and is close to autonomous-car research at his company, and he was explaining to me one small proof of this. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, a fully autonomous car comes to market, and I purchase one. For this car to have passed all regulatory restrictions it will have to have a number of road- and traffic-safety rules programmed into it. One would be the “three-second safe following distance” rule. So I’d be driving down the road, at the speed limit, likely in one of the right lanes, and the space in front of me would be a three-second gap to the car in ahead. As soon as a car (inevitably) pulls into the gap in front of me, my car would automatically slow down to give a three-second gap to the new vehicle. You can see how this could cause issues for traffic behind me, as well as slow my travel time down significantly.

Now, if all cars were autonomous, it would be a different story, and in this case, the three-second rule would not need to exist. If all cars were autonomous and could talk to each other and make adjustments in real time, cars could travel down the road very close together. Not only would we have no accidents, we would have no traffic jams. The downside in this is when you stop and think about how long it will take for all cars to have these sensors and for all cars to be autonomous. Unfortunately, we are several decades away, at a minimum, from this reality.

Ultimately, the hybrid autonomous concept is likely to happen first. My car will be able to make decisions for me in many circumstances to avoid or minimize accidents. And as long as there are cars on the road that are 100 percent controlled by humans, the risk of automotive accidents will remain high. Then, in the future, accidents will be a thing of the past.

Ben Bajarin is a principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc., an industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Reach him @BenBajarin.

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