If a fully loaded commercial airliner crashed every single day, killing all passengers and crewmembers on board, how long would it take for dramatic safety improvements to be mandated? Traffic experts say the equivalent is happening on our nation's roads, with 42,000 people dying every year in automobile accidents, an average of 115 each day.
New technologies on display in New York City's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center this week suggest the number of highway deaths could be reduced significantly if consumers are willing to pay for new features in their cars, and government and private industry can find the cash during these tough economic times to help fund more testing and development.
At the 15th World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems, there are vehicles on display from a variety of automobile manufacturers, including Mercedes and Infiniti, that can warn of approaching vehicles, road hazards and red lights, and automatically stop the car if you don't do it yourself.
Displays inside the car warn the driver of the closing distance to intersections with yellow warnings and then project red stop signs if the light isn't green. If the driver doesn't slow down, the car screeches to a halt by itself.
A similar system senses people or vehicles in blind spots as you back out of a space. When you get too close, the car slams on the brake pedal without any input from your foot.
There are systems that can even detect vehicles next to you, braking and steering you away from danger at highway speeds, and others that communicate with traffic signals to allow buses or emergency vehicles to make use of the road more efficiently.
There's also a new project, developed in part by the University of California at Berkeley, that could change the lives of millions of commuters. With a downloadable application, maps and accurate commute times are available instantly on your blackberry, iPhone, or cell phone, telling you when the next bus or train arrives at the station and when you'll be arriving at each and every stop along the way.
"Fundamentally it's about getting information about the commute from origin to destination into the hands of people" says Paul Brubaker, the Administrator in charge of Research and Innovative Technology at the U.S. Department of Transportation. "It takes a lot of the guesswork out. Say you don't want to wait 20 minutes on a subway platform. You can arrive just in time to catch that train at that station. We know how fast cars are moving, we know how fast traffic is moving, and we can share that information."
Michael Noblett, the General Chair of the ITS World Congress is excited about the possibilities. "The technology excuse is off the table" he says, suggesting thousands of lives and billions of dollars could be saved every year, not just from the cost of accidents but also by helping drivers avoid idle time by steering them away from congestion. "It's just getting congress to pass legislation in the next transportation bill to fund deployment of a safety network."
It will also likely require consumers to pony up fees for some of the technology, like downloads to their phones or upgrades to their cars.
Brian Brockman of Nissan thinks it won't be a tough sell. "If it's something that helps people avoid collisions, keeps them and their families and their vehicles safe, you will have people who are interested in this kind of technology."
The stated goal is an environment in which cars don't crash, and the technology making it possible exists today.