“Safety first” is a great motto when it comes to any machinery, but we’re especially conscious of it with autonomous vehicles. In fact, even though driverless cars have better safety stats than cars with human drivers, polls of drivers routinely find that most of us aren’t ready to trust them.
Outgoing Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx makes an excellent point in a Popular Science interview: “We [have the chance to] be a part of developing a culture of safety around driverless cars from the beginning. We didn’t have that chance with the original automobiles or the airplane. Those technologies existed before our department did.”
The first fatal car crash took place in 1899, and it was as much of a turning point as the first fatal autonomous vehicle crash. Traffic fatalities increased over the next few decades, and it should not have been a surprise.
Early cars had no windshields or windshields made of plain glass, no head restraints or seat belts, and no rear view mirrors. Laws followed fatalities, and the laws were initially focused on drivers. Cars don’t kill people, lawmakers of the early 20th century figured, people kill people. It wasn’t until the 1920s that manufacturers started to think about auto design as a way to reduce auto accidents. Shatterproof glass, steering wheels that were designed not to impale drivers, and seat belts were among the safety-minded innovations of the 20th century.
In the 21st century auto safety innovations have centered on smarter cars — cars that can alert drivers or even take over when a driver fails to brake. Sensors have come into their own as a safety feature.
Today’s autonomous vehicles gather data which can be used to identify possible dangers and maneuvers that keep accidents from happening. “Taking a proactive approach on laws that require autonomous automakers to share information will help keep roads secure in the future,” says Foxx.
The Department of Transportation hopes to learn from early mistakes.