TMCnet Feature
September 25, 2020

The Price of a Human Life: Impacts of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry's Advances

Few people can deny excitement the idea of autonomous vehicles (AVs) is generating and how it has become an undeniable part of future vehicular transportation.Even today, cars connected to technology, such as blue tooth connectivity, make driving more convenient for those inside the vehicle.

But what of those outside it? The pedestrians, cyclists, and road users who pay the ultimate price for these technological advances as roads become more vehicle-friendly and less human-friendly.

Transport’s human cost

In early September, the streets of San Francisco, California, were turned into a living memorial to people who lost their lives after being struck by a vehicle that did not see them.One hundred seventeen cyclists and pedestrians died this way over five years.Their lives were memorialized by placing white bicycles for cyclists and shoes for pedestrians at the roadside where these victims’ lives ended.

A QR code accompanied each.For those that scanned them, the story of each victim and their senseless death would appear.Victims as young as two and as old as 90 have fallen prey to vehicles on the city’s streets.

Concerned citizens worry that excessive loss of life will only continue as vehicle technology marches on, and the roads become a safer place for those in vehicles and a more dangerous one for those who are not.

This is more evident now than it was ten years ago.People worry is that developers of these advances care more about their products and bottom lines than they do about other road users’ lives.They aim to reduce and eliminate these senseless deaths by preventing accidents that should never have happened at all.

Among these groups is !important Safety Technologies, which is using existing technology to connect drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users.A simple app installed on a smartphone and used as part of a car’s onboard connectivity raises awareness about other road users to consider their needs and safety.

Transport’s human element

Transportation has always been a basic human need since the dawn of humankind.While people may have started out traveling from one point to another by foot, the discovery of the horse as an ideal means of transportation, the invention of the wheel, and then the combustible engine makes it even more convenient.

Modern lifestyles require a high degree of mobility, and governments worldwide have invested billions, if not trillions, of dollars to build public transportation infrastructure that provides everyone a chance to move around as they need to.Additionally, many countries have prioritized cyclists and pedestrians, providing them with safe spaces, well away from cars.These two modes of transportation are actively encouraged, as they do not have a detrimental impact on the environment.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about some cities, especially old areas with narrow streets and sidewalks.Here, pedestrians and cyclists compete with drivers for space as they commute.And it is here that chances of human fatalities after accidents increase and the tragic cases of lives lost continue to mount.

Transportation’s economic cost

People’s finances either include or exclude them from transportation systems.Those who cannot afford cars must rely on public transportation, riding bicycles, or traveling by foot.Even those who can afford cars are limited by their budgets.As a car retail price increases, so do its safety features.Newer cars have better safety features than their older counterparts.

AV production is in its infancy, and initial models will be expensive.It will take many more years before the majority of people will be able to afford them.Therefore, rich people are safer on the roads than the poor.Although the question remains whether the rich are entitled to be safer on the road than the poor or if safety should be a priority for everyone, regardless of their socio-economic circumstances, these are simple economic facts.

The AV phenomenon

For many people, the idea of having their car drive them home after a long day at the office sounds like an attractive prospect.Proponents of AVs say that there will be fewer drunk driving accidents as drivers over the limit can surrender control of their vehicle to an autonomous robot that will get them home safely.According to these AV advocates, there are limitless advantages.

Others would argue that AVs will lead to massive job losses, cause society to lose the vital human interaction it needs and be a first step in robots taking over the world as they know it.They point to existing tests that show AVs are not ready to be rolled out into the market immediately because there are still glitches to be corrected.There is also a very understandable fear among people to accept change and surrender control to someone (or something) they do not know or trust.

Is there common ground?

As with most situations in which people hold strong views, there is room for compromise. Between developing AV technology, companies can also equip them with capabilities they need to make the roads a safer place for all users.Even cars with enhanced connectivity capacity can be programmed to do the same.For example, many vehicles are equipped with cameras that help them spot pedestrians and cyclists more easily.This technology alone can save lives.

A lot of progress has been made in the AV industry to create vehicles that would detect and stop for pedestrians or swerve to avoid cyclists. However, developers must still go a long way to establish trust from a skeptical population of potential users who still have a phobia of having their lives taken over by machines.

Forty years ago, people predicted that transportation in 2020 would include floating cars and freeways in midair. While their estimations might not have been entirely accurate, we are closer now to making this a reality than ever before. However, advances like this cannot come at a human cost, and tech companies should place the human factor at the pinnacle of their business objectives.

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