In purely objective terms, we cannot escape the reality that automated driving is fast becoming an irresistible force in the automotive world. The obvious example is Tesla – and who doesn’t want a Tesla? But when we look ahead to the next 10 years, Tesla is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg.

Already in 2021, a whole host of household names are set to launch at least semi-autonomous vehicles (AV) this year and Apple’s ‘Project Titan’ continues to make waves without any meaningful details even known about a future Apple Car.

Here at Applied Driving Techniques (ADT), we live and breathe driver safety first and foremost. With Applied Companion, we also believe passionately in the role that technology and automation can play in revolutionising driver safety – if appropriately implemented. Yes, it’s our business, but it’s also our passion.

It’s precisely for this reason, and not despite it, that we also recognise the importance of playing a role in a mature and evolving discussion around the opportunities and risks of technology in the cockpit.

We won’t pretend to have all the answers, but we’re committed to contributing.

The growing role of automation

Despite the obvious clichés, popular culture has always been a pretty decent predictor of our technological future – and it’s no different with automated driving. Think of the Batmobile in the 1989 film ‘Batman’ or the driverless vehicles in Minority Report. Throw into the mix that Japan-based Tsukuba Mechanical actually pioneered the very first self-driving car as early as 1977 and it’s probably no surprise that autonomous vehicles are a fast growing reality in 2021.

Popular culture and history aside, the cold, hard statistics are unavoidable: the global AV market is now said to be worth $54 billion, with forecasts predicting that figure will increase ten-fold in the next 5-7 years. In the UK specifically, a government report predicts that 40% of new UK car sales could have self-driving capabilities by 2035, with a total market value of £41.7 billion. Looking to manufacturers themselves, Audi alone plan to spend $16 billion on self-driving cars by 2023 and in March 2021, Honda beat Tesla in the race to release the world’s first certified Level 3 self-driving vehicle.

Yet stuck in the middle of this automotive arms race is an awkward if essential question: how can we embrace the genuine advantages of technology, but without compromising on a safety-first mentality?

The potential benefits

Raw logic alone will tell you that over the long-term, autonomous vehicles really do have the potential to improve road safety. Why? Because over 90% of accidents occur through human error – due to factors including errors of judgment, drink-driving and speeding. And it’s these kinds of statistics, paired with the potential of the technology, that has seen the British Government predict that Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) have the potential to ‘improve the safety and efficiency of how we travel over the coming decades’. Looking beyond safety, there’s also the hope that autonomous vehicles, driving more efficiently than humans, could effect a reduction in emissions – to list just two obvious benefits.

Looking beyond autonomous vehicles, technology also presents opportunities to make dramatic improvements in the wider driving safety landscape. Through our own trials, we’ve shown that artificial intelligence has the power to detect various forms of at-risk driving events, and to respond with targeted behaviour change interventions over time.

In a 15-month trial of our new Applied Companion app, we witnessed a significant reduction in speeding (68%), harsh breaking (70%), rapid acceleration (90%) and distracted driving [phone handling] (100%). And for us, these results are just the beginning.

The unavoidable risks

Yet despite these obvious benefits, there’s no denying that this fast-moving arc of technological improvement brings with it a host of challenges, too.

Currently in the news is the case of a Tesla crash in Texas, in which two men died when their Model S hit a tree and caught fire – amid suspicions that no one was in the driver’s seat. For their part, Tesla have disputed this and confirmed that Autopilot was not, and could not, have been enabled at the time. Tesla also argue that standard safety features in their cars prevent self-driving features from functioning without driver supervision, but Consumer Reports says such systems are easily ‘tricked’.

In the broader discussion, Tesla argue that, according to their own data, their ‘Autopilot’ technology is already significantly safer than humans. These numbers look great, although they have been questioned in several quarters.

Finding common ground

Looking beyond the anecdote, the good news is there does at least seem to be universal acknowledgement that driver involvement is going to remain critical for the foreseeable future. In an on-going MIT study, researchers have already logged over 500,000 miles in their quest to study how ‘human-AI interaction in driving can be safe and enjoyable’.

Ultimately, this kind of pragmatic, objective analysis seems like a decent place to start: this technology is not going away, and, in the endgame, it might actually save lives. Until we reach the point of anything even approaching certainty, the industry needs to work together to better understand how such technologies can work together with the driver. And safety must always be front of mind.