November 01, 2016

Technology and Automobile Safety

Martin B. Cowan

Using technology to improve automobile safety is not something new. Safety glass in windshields was introduced around 1930 and mandated for all cars in 1937. Today, we regard seat belts and airbags to be standard life-saving equipment. The engine compartments and steering wheel columns are designed to collapse and absorb the impact of front-end collisions in a manner that protects the occupants. We take for granted technology, such as automatic braking systems (ABS), which help prevent skidding on slippery surfaces, or computerized programs that stabilize cars and help prevent them from tipping over, which are being credited with a surprisingly large number of lives saved.

Automobiles can also be purchased with a variety of technologies, such as side air bags and traction control. Some of the newer cars can detect and alert the driver to the presence of people and animals (e.g., deer or bicyclists) on the side of the road at night. Many safety features are presently mandated by law (e.g., dual air bags, seat belts, electronic stability control, and tire pressure monitors) or are slated to be required in all consumer vehicles in the very near future. For example, approximately half of all passenger cars sold in the United States today have back-up cameras as standard equipment; they will be required on all passenger cars manufactured after April 30, 2018 (www.cnet.com/news/u-s-requiring-back-up-cameras-in-cars-by-2018/).

Nevertheless, some of the new safety features presently included in commercial passenger vehicles leave something to be desired. For example, the back-up camera in one luxury model only works if the radio is on, something that has been criticized in a leading consumer magazine. It is possible that this anomaly may be eliminated on models manufactured after the April 30, 2018, deadline. Another example is the ABS in a different high-end vehicle that is supposed to stop the car before impact. Despite being rates as one of the three best ABSs by the Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), it can only bring the car to a complete stop if it is going twenty-five mph and the enhanced cruise control system is on. It is hard to imagine many drivers engaging a cruise control when less than twenty-five mph.

Many of these safety features were unknown just a few years ago. While some are still available only in luxury cars or top-of-the-line models, they are gradually becoming optional, if not standard, equipment in lower-cost vehicles. These include alarms that warn of a vehicle in the driver’s blind spot or that the automobile is starting to drift out of a marked highway lane. Some lane-drift systems will even steer the car back to the center of the correct lane automatically, while the blind spot warning on at least one car will apply the brakes. Another alarm warns when the driver is starting to show behavior that suggests that he or she is falling asleep. Some automobiles will apply the brakes when they calculate that the vehicle is about to crash into another vehicle or stationary object, like a bridge abutment, bringing the vehicle to a complete stop, if necessary (although few, if any, can yet bring a car to a complete halt before impact at normal highway speeds) (www.iihs.org/iihs/news/desktopnews/quick-work-better-autobrake-helps-more-models-earn-top-ratings-for-front-crash-prevention). GPS systems provide additional safety features, including the ability to summon help even if all of the occupants in a vehicle are unconscious, or are unable to inform emergency services of their exact location.

These safety systems may have their most immediate impact on the fatality rate for older drivers by sensing an impending collision at an intersection, which is the most common type of accident involving older drivers. As evident in its online report on older drivers, IIHS provides the following summary regarding how crashes involving older drivers differ from crashes involving other drivers:

Compared with younger drivers, senior drivers are more likely to be involved in certain types of collisions—angle crashes, overtaking or merging crashes, and especially intersection crashes. Among passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2012, multiple-vehicle crashes at intersections accounted for 35 percent of the crashes for drivers 80 and older, compared with 18 percent for drivers ages 20–49.

Studies of senior-involved crashes have found that failure to yield the right-of-way is the most common error among seniors. Seniors are cited for this error more often than younger drivers. In a 2007 Institute study of older drivers who were at fault in intersection crashes involving nonfatal injuries, drivers age 70 and older had more failure-to-yield crashes than younger drivers. Reasons for older drivers’ failure-to-yield crashes varied with age. Compared with younger and older drivers, drivers 70–79 were more likely to see another vehicle but misjudge whether there was time to proceed. Drivers 80 and older predominantly failed to see the other vehicle.

(www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/older-drivers/qanda).

Over the next few years, there will undoubtedly be many other safety features added to cars that even the most farsighted of us are unable to imagine, which will greatly increase driving for all drivers. Statistics confirm this perpetual growth in automobile safety. From 1987 to 2012, the fatality rate per miles driven has declined by more than half, from 2.42 deaths per 100 million miles driven to 1.13 (www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx). According to an article from the Wall Street Journal, a 2014 study released by IIHS found that the fatality rate for older drivers has also been declining: 55 percent between 1995 and 2008, or an average of approximately 4 percent per year (www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304275304579393841501352018). The most amazing statistic recently published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that the likelihood that someone who purchased a new automobile in 2013 would have a fatal accident during the first twelve months of operation was 70 percent less than the likelihood that someone who purchased a new automobile in 2003 would have a fatal accident during the first twelve months and 50 percent less than the likelihood that someone who purchased a new automobile in 2008 would have a fatal accident during the first twelve months. While there may be other factors involved (e.g., the number of accidents attributable to driving while intoxicated has declined, but the number of accidents attributable to texting while driving is probably increasing), the new safety devices in automobiles are credited with being the main reason for this change.

Perhaps the most interesting prospect may be completely automated, driverless, computer-controlled vehicles that take control of the driving operation from start to finish. Several automobile manufacturers and computer companies are racing to produce such a vehicle, referred to as “autonomous.” This idea is so wildly popular that it is difficult to pick up a newspaper without seeing another story about this developing technology. Four states (Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan) and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing driverless vehicles on the highway, but only for testing purposes, and usually they still require a driver in the car who can take control in an emergency.

One autonomous car in particular, the Google Self-Driving Car, has received substantial publicity recently, and may be the closest to commercialization. The most recent prototype of this car has no pedals or steering wheels, and the headlights are only for show, not for lighting up anything. Because the car “sees” using electronic devices similar to radar, headlights may serve no function other than to warn others (e.g., oncoming traffic) of its presence on the highway at night. A small number of these vehicles may be on the streets of Silicon Valley by 2017. By 2020, the developer hopes to start selling them to commercial users. Initially, these vehicles may be designed primarily for local, intra-city transportation, with a top speed of only twenty-five mph, which will enable them to omit certain safety features required on automobiles that are capable of higher speeds. This will reduce the vehicle’s weight and energy requirements, which will improve the potential range of operation, but will prohibit it from operating on public highways with higher speed limits.

This quotation from Wikipedia indicates that fully autonomous vehicles still have a ways to go before they can be used safely:

As of August 28, 2014 the latest prototype . . . can [only] go at sluggish speeds when crossing an unmarked 4-way stop due to the algorithms of the computer taking extra precaution. There are also other limitations on discerning objects such as trash and debris that can unnecessarily veer the vehicle. Additionally . . . the lidar technology cannot spot potholes or humans, such as a police officer, signaling the car to stop.

The vehicles are unable to recognize temporary traffic signals. They have not proven themselves in snow or rain. . . . Vehicles are unable to differentiate between pedestrian and policeman or between crumpled up paper and a rock.

The prototype vehicle was recently pulled over by a patrol car for going too slow on a highway with a speed limit higher than twenty-five mph. It is not clear whether the car knew that the patrol car wanted it to pull over. However, there were two humans inside the car and, presumably, they took the controls. It has also been reported that this vehicle’s software is often confused by the activities of other human drivers, especially at four-way stop signs. The problem is that it waits for the cars coming from the other directions to come to a complete stop, which they never do, so the autonomous car just sits there at the stop sign, blocking everything behind it, waiting for everyone entering the intersection from the other directions to come to a complete stop.

While the initial market may be primarily taxi cab services within metropolitan areas, and it may be several years more before ordinary consumers will be able to purchase them, similar vehicles are currently under development by other companies that will be permitted to operate in driverless mode on limited access highways, presumably because the software program is less complicated in that context. Another manufacturer expects to download similar software to their already-sold vehicles that will automate many features. The downloads will be sent electronically to the vehicle; there will be no need to bring it to a dealer or garage for the update.

There is little doubt that autonomous, driverless cars are coming. The only question is when. If and when they do, it will be possible for anyone, regardless of age or medical or mental condition, to travel with complete safety. Even a blind person would be able to “drive” the vehicle, merely by speaking the destination and related instructions. While the 2020 target for commercial release of the Google Self-Driving Car is probably much too optimistic, at least for ordinary passenger vehicles, there is a reasonable likelihood that they will be available for consumers sooner than we think. Certainly more and more of the functions of the vehicle will be automated each year, with increasing safety at each step. At some point, the level of automation for functions involving vehicle safety and navigation will be close to 100 percent.

When these machines do become available, we will need to rethink many of our present approaches to licensing and to city planning in general. For example, vision testing and the ability to parallel park may be unnecessary. One publicity release suggested that because driverless cars will be widely used to pick up riders on demand, we will need fewer automobiles on the highways, although other studies suggest the opposite. Certainly, they will bring major improvements to the quality of life of seniors who would otherwise find themselves increasingly unable to participate in ordinary and common social activities that would require them to drive.

Martin B. Cowan

Martin B. Cowan practiced law in the tax department at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy in New York City, and from time to time taught tax courses at New York University, Florida State University, the University of Miami, and Quinnipiac University. He is a past chair of the Real Estate Tax Committee of the ABA Tax Section, and is currently chair of the Senior Lawyer Division’s Task Force on Protecting the IRA Accounts of the Elderly.