One of the great promises of autonomous vehicles and driverless driving is technology's potential to vastly increase safety on the road. In its 2018 annual report, the Michigan Council on Future Mobility states that, ultimately, "the road carrying autonomous vehicles will be safer." It points out that more than 100 people are killed in the U.S. every day in crashes involving non-autonomous vehicles, and it concludes "increased technology has the potential to dramatically reduce that statistic."

Distracted driving, including drowsiness, is responsible for a huge number of traffic accidents every year. In a widely quoted National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study representing more than 2 million crashes and about 4 million vehicles and drivers over a two-and-a-half year period, the critical reason--the last event in the crash causal chain--was assigned to the driver in 94 percent of crashes.

It's statistics like those that prompted the RAND Corporation to release a report last year arguing that the introduction of autonomous vehicles should be accelerated. Requiring autonomous vehicles to be nearly flawless before putting them on the road is costing lives, the report's authors contend. Their research concluded that introducing autonomous vehicles when they are just better than human drivers, as opposed to nearly perfect, could save hundreds of thousands of lives over 30 years.

Working together to make cars and roads safer

The automotive industry, often in partnership with public agencies, is constantly working to improve transportation safety, with efforts focused on both vehicles and traffic infrastructure. Features like anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC) have become standard equipment on most of today's vehicles. Newer safety features--many resulting from the push to develop autonomous vehicle technology--such as forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot warning are increasingly common.

Public agencies are taking steps to improve traffic infrastructure safety and get ready for the coming age of highly automated and, eventually, driverless vehicles. For example, over the past 10 years, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) has developed the Southeast Michigan Traffic Operations Center to bring traffic monitoring and responses into the modern age.

"This is an important complement to our intelligent traffic signals and, eventually, connected vehicle technology. Smaller versions are in Lansing and Grand Rapids," says Kirk Steudle, director of MDOT. "The technology at these centers is helping us with insights into routine traffic patterns and incidents of disruption."

As in other areas of mobility technology, Michigan companies are taking the lead in developing new approaches to safety. One is SEEVA Technologies, co-founded by the father-daughter team of Diane (CEO) and Jere Lansinger (chief engineer). The company is built around an IP portfolio of "visibility for mobility" innovations, which have applications in autonomous vehicles and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) for passenger cars and trucks.

SEEVA's first product, Qwiktherm, is a mechanical-only system that heats washer fluid by capturing heat from a vehicle's engine-cooling system. The technology can also be used to clean any component of a vehicle's visibility ecosystem, including LED headlamps and tail lamps and cameras. But its most important safety applications, the Lansingers believe, will be for cleaning lenses on LiDar, radar, and other sensors that are critical to autonomous vehicle and ADAS technology.

Stopping accidents before they happen

Derq, a member of PlanetM Landing Zone, a public-private partnership working to attract and connect mobility-focused startups to Michigan's automotive ecosystem, has developed a proprietary technology to predict and prevent car accidents for both conventional and autonomous vehicles. It uses artificial intelligence and V2X (vehicle-to-everything communication, which exchanges information with any entity that may affect it or which it may affect) to leverage smart cities and connected vehicles ecosystems.

One of Derq's pilot programs is focused on predicting when someone will run a red light. Piggybacking on infrastructure such as sensors or cameras used for security or counting traffic, a machine model running in real time uses that information to predict two seconds in advance when a car is about to run a red light. It can send an alert, in real time, to all vehicles equipped to receive it, giving them a chance to react and avoid danger.

"With automated vehicles, we are moving from the pure testing phase to testing in controlled circumstances on public roads," Steudle says. "We know that vehicles can be operated with an automated driving system rather than a human operator." Although it will be some time before driverless cars take to the road in significant numbers, he's confident that, working together, public agencies like MDOT, automakers, and the growing number of Michigan companies focused on mobility innovation will make sure safety keeps pace with new developments.