With an estimated 40,000 road deaths in 2016, the fatality rate spiked back to closer to 13 per billion miles traveled, erasing the progress made in the last decade. The dopamine rush of social media engagement and other new ways that our pocket computers distract us is suspected of playing a role in the increase in road deaths. If smartphones are found to be fueling the increase in crashes, then the same advances in information technology and computing that enable a future with autonomous vehicles could be literally killing people on the roadways in the present.
Figuring out the engineering, safety, ethics and regulatory challenges of this gray zone is an emerging priority. But there remains justified enthusiasm for the future automation could enable: driverless vehicles efficiently zipping passengers through uncongested streets in shared, electric, lightweight vehicles with drastically reduced crash and fatality rates. Yet this future is by no means guaranteed, and will likely take longer to materialize than people think.
Some of the automated features that assist drivers are available now and could dramatically improve safety. We just have to be comfortable enough to recognize the beauty and the potential of incremental innovations.