Huge human and economic cost
According to the WHO (World Health Organization) around 1,3 mllion people die in road traffic accidents every year, with pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists accounting for half of the total. Most of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.
The WHO estimates that road traffic fatalities will be the fifth leading cause of death by 2030.
However, statistics can be misleading as the large numbers of victims reflect an exceptional growth in global road traffic in recent years. In most developed countries, the number of road accident fatalities has been steadily diminishing for decades. In the US, for instance, fatalities in car accidents dropped by 30% between 1994 and 2011 (in spite of a 20% increase in the number of drivers and 33% growth in the number of vehicles).
Overall in 25 European Union countries (i.e. not including the 3 to join most recently) road traffic deaths (including motorcyclists and non-motorists) fell by 54% between 1992 and 2009.
The falling rate of road traffic accidents observed in many countries is by and large the result of the gradual adoption of passive and active safety measures and devices. Changes in road traffic regulations and improved road and signalling infrastructure have also played their part.
Seat belts and airbags are the best examples of passive safety devices. Compulsory wearing of seat belts for drivers, front and rear passengers, which started being introduced in most countries from the 1970s, has made a great contribution to cutting the number of deaths and serious injuries caused by road accidents. Airbags, now standard equipment on most cars, offer additional safety by protecting occupants from hitting parts of the vehicle’s interior in case of a hard impact.
...to active safety
Active safety is provided by devices that help prevent crashes, or reduce their seriousness. They are triggered and operated by electronic systems introduced more recently than passive devices.
ABS (anti-lock braking system), which has been fitted gradually to cars since the mid-1980s, is an active safety system that prevents the wheels of a vehicle from locking up, reduces braking distance and helps avoiding uncontrolled skidding in case of emergency braking, allowing the driver to remain in control.
ESC (electronic stability control), first rolled out in the early / mid-2000s, helps avoid crashes by detecting the likelihood of vehicles losing traction and going into a skid during sudden manoeuvres such as avoiding an obstacle in front. ESC applies brakes to wheels independently, so reducing the risk of such skids occurring.
Lane departure warning systems, using cameras and sensors, warn drivers when their vehicle moves out of its lane; they help prevent accidents provoked by drowsiness or distraction. Blind spot monitoring alerts drivers to possible risks that may be in blind spots to the side of the vehicle and so could go undetected. Other recent advanced active safety systems include adaptive cruise control, which automatically depresses and releases the accelerator pedal to stay even with traffic even as speeds of other vehicles vary, and anti-collision equipment that apply brakes when the driver is distracted.
All passive and active safety devices and systems, including many driver assistance systems that offer additional safety features, were initially offered either as standard features on the priciest luxury models or as optional and costly extras on other cars before becoming standard equipment on all vehicles.
These devices rely entirely on countless electrical and electronic components such as sensors or MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), and all their associated components, such as connectors, cables, fuses or drives, or improved lights, which are covered by IEC International Standards (see article in this e-tech on electric/electronic content in cars) and for some by IECQ, the IEC worldwide approval and certification system embracing the supply of electronic components and associated materials and assemblies and processes.
Smart transportation looming on the horizon
If passive and active safety devices have contributed greatly to cutting the numbers of road accident victims in many countries, new technologies made possible by ICT (information and communications technology) herald additional benefits for road safety. The average car has 50 computers, some have as many as 100 and the trend is growing, Jeffrey J. Owens, Chief Technology Officer and Executive VP, Delphi Automotive, told participants in a symposium on the Future Networked Car, held on the fringe of the 2014 Geneva Motor Show.
A car is no longer a machine that gets occupants from A to B, but increasingly a software-driven platform that keeps them plugged in, informed, entertained and safe.
Today’s new drivers live in a connected world and expect a connected car. They want to bring their connectivity and the environment they have in the office and at home into the car. The challenge is to do that safely and with less distraction, as there are enough opportunities for distraction in road traffic as it is, Owens said. The aim is to have more connectivity and less distraction.
Towards the self-driving car
As is often the case when humans meet technology, people are often the weakest link. Connectivity aims to help drivers when they need it by providing technology which ensures that, even if the driver is distracted, the car never is.
One objective is to create a "safety envelope" around the car. Technologies for this, such as predictive forward collision system (for the car in front plus one) or steer-by-wire, already exist and hint at forthcoming autonomous driving capabilities.
One long-term objective is to provide the possibility of autonomous driving when drivers want / need it. Certain modes of automated transport are already in operation (see article in this e-tech on pods at Heathrow Airport and Masdar City). Autonomously-driven cars have already been tested on highways, so far without causing any accidents.
Government regulators are already encouraging further automation and communication between vehicles. In early February 2014 the US Department of Transport announced a plan to require auto makers to equip new cars and trucks with so called V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) crash-avoidance systems that allow vehicles to communicate with each other to avoid crashes. The DoT estimates that V2V communication could prevent up to 80% of accidents that don’t involve drink driving or mechanical failure.
Liability and security issues
Connected and networked cars may pose a number of legal issues. One that has been encountered before is that of liability.
Car manufacturers have recalled and are still occasionally recalling cars when a fault appears, often after several years. When these faults have resulted in fatalities, manufacturers have even faced costly lawsuits.
In the case of networked cars the liability issue becomes more complicated: it may prove difficult to establish if accidents are due to mechanical or electrical faults, software or communication problems or to other issues, such as hacking.
Another issue that has been mentioned is that breaches of security in cars’ ICT systems might result in vehicle malfunction and accidents occurring. Manufacturers are aware of these risks and are working to reduce and suppress the likelihood of their occurrence.
Safer driving conditions for all in the future
Connected and networked vehicles will undoubtedly have a positive impact on road safety. Experts forecast they could result in a further drop of 50% or more in the number of road traffic victims.
However, it must be borne in mind that the number of victims is unequally shared between countries and regions. Low- and middle-income countries currently account for 48% of the world’s vehicles but more than 90% of the world’s road traffic fatalities.
As the cost of electronics in cars is forecast to reach 65% of their overall value in a few years, it is clear that the benefits of connected cars are likely to be felt initially mainly in high-income countries before reaching other nations further into the future.