Opinion: while we may not see fully autonomous vehicles on Irish roads in 2018, the technology could be put to use immediately to reduce the numbers killed or injured in road traffic accidents

Mention 9/11 to anyone who lived through that day in 2001 and images of burning buildings and people dying on live TV immediately spring to mind. Almost 3,000 innocent, hard-working people died in the most brutal circumstances and it’s an event which will live forever in the minds of those who witnessed it in person or on TV. While the motives behind 9/11 were a significant part of the story, the shock of such a tragic loss of life on such a large scale was one of the key elements that imprinted that date on everyone’s memory. 

But yesterday, today, tomorrow and every day of every week of the coming year, more than 3,000 people are killed on the roads of the world due to vehicle accidents. Just like New York in September 2001, these are innocent, hard-working individuals who set out on an average day to do their routine things and lose their lives on the roads of the world. The statistics also indicate that there are 40 to 50 more people injured, some seriously and others maybe less so, for every person killed on the road.

The numbers are staggering: according to the World Health Organisation, approximately 1.25 million people lose their lives on the roads of the world every year with a further 50 to 70 million injured. While 2017 was the lowest year for road deaths in Ireland, a total of 158 people still lost their lives on our roads with186 lives lost in 2016.

In-car technology could significantly impact on those road safety statistics

While we may hear, see or read news reports, most of us don’t give it a second glance unless tragedy affects us directly. We have become immune to the slaughter on our roads that has claimed more lives in the last 100 years than the two world wars combined. It has been estimated that road traffic injuries will become the seventh leading cause of death globally by 2030 unless something is done to stop this trend.

Now, in-car technology is emerging that could significantly impact on those road safety statistics. However, it’s not being showcased as potential life-saving technology, but as the must-have expensive toy, the autonomous vehicle.

In many ways, everything that is needed to make a car drive autonomously already exists as we have a plethora of sensors, high powered computers and increasingly capable software. The problem is making the technology robust enough so that an autonomous car can safely deal with the huge variety of scenarios it is likely to encounter during its lifetime.

A Uber self-driving car passes a cyclist in Pittsburgh. Photo: Angelo Merendino AFP/Getty Images

While we’re still a few years away from the vehicle without a steering wheel, we currently have sensors on cars to detect pedestrians and support the drivier by braking automatically if a pedestrian is deemed to be in danger. We have technology that can read road-signs and warn the driver of speeding.

We have automatic cruise control that can ensure that we maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front. We have lane-keeping assistance that can warn us of drifting out of lane. We’ve blind-spot detection that can warn us if we try to move into the path of a vehicle that we can’t see. We have sensors in the cockpit that monitor us in case we fall asleep at the wheel. The autonomous vehicle is ultimately going to be a powerful computer that reads these sensors and replaces the human being with artificial intelligence that will do the thinking for us.

These are life-saving features which might reduce our insurance costs and reduce our likelihood of either being the victim or the cause of a road accident

The thing is, though, we’re in the driving seat now and a substantial portion of the population will be there for many years to come. However, we have technology that could assist us with our driving, and make the roads safer, long before we ever see even the first fully autonomous vehicle on Irish roads.

If you go to the car forecourts, you’ll see vehicles with all these options. But when you look at the price list, you’ll see that it can cost several thousand euros to add these extra "features" to our cars. These are life-saving features which might reduce our insurance costs and reduce our likelihood of either being the victim or the cause of a road accident, but we have to pay thousands of euros to get our hands on them.

If the government are serious about improving road safety, they should incentivise the car-buying public by removing VAT and VRT from these life-saving advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

We should be legislating to make life-saving essential features a core part of every car that is bought from 2018 onwards

With a simple stroke of a pen, the Government could dramatically reduce the cost of these technologies and encourage more people to take these options.

It would result in long-term savings for the government. At present, many people can’t afford these technologies due to cost so the VAT and VRT losses would not be significant. The major savings would come with fewer fatalities on the roads, fewer injuries, fewer hospital beds taken up, fewer operations required and fewer families experiencing the stress and trauma of having a member injured or killed on the road.

The car-buying public is often focused on the glamour of high-end sports cars, the efficiency of the electric vehicle, the utility of the SUV and the huge expectations (and fears) that come with self-driving vehicles. But we should be legislating to make life-saving essential features a core part of every car that is bought from 2018 onwards, and not penalising those who choose them. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ