The slow evolution towards the self-driving vehicle

Automatic braking systems have demonstrated the capability of reducing rear-end collisions and the resulting injuries

Motor vehicles are expensive. No, not just the cost of purchasing a new vehicle, the cost of insuring it, fueling it and having it serviced and maintained. And it is certain that many in Peoria have two vehicles and if they have children, they may also fund the majority of those vehicles.

But their convenience and necessity force most people in a state like Illinois to own at least one. When you imagine having to cross Peoria by bus, it quickly becomes clear why having a car is deemed essential.

And, perhaps, that is why we tolerate the 30,000-plus deaths that occur every year due to motor vehicle crashes. And the hundreds of thousands who will suffer injuries from minor and trivial to life changing and catastrophic. A traumatic brain or spinal cord injury fundamentally alters every aspect of your life. You may no longer be able to perform your job or even move about without a motorized wheelchair or other assistance.

The high cost of motor vehicle crashes

From that perspective, car collisions and crashes are mind-bogglingly expensive. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimated that in 2010 the total economic and societal harm was $871 billion. Yes, the citizens of the United States endure almost $1 trillion in damage every year for the privilege and convenience of operating a motor vehicle.

We are doing better. If nearly one trillion dollars in damage is better. The total number of those killed has been significantly reduced from where it stood in the 1970s and 1980s. And cars are safer, as is shown by the reduced rate of crashes per million vehicle miles traveled.

However, ask any family who has suffered a loss of a husband, wife or child and you quickly grasp that the "cost" of these deaths is not evenly distributed.

Autonomous vehicle would not fall asleep or drive drunk

One the most hopeful element in the development of driverless automobiles is the prospect for a significant reduction in the number of crashes that occur every year. A vehicle that is controlled by an omniscient computer that never grows distracted, tired or intoxicated, and that communicates with other vehicles and its surroundings to coordinate movement in such a way as to virtually eliminate crashes is the ultimate goal.

But it may be some time. While many very large companies are pouring billions in research and development into this project, it is an immensely difficult one. Turns out that driving along on a highway is an immensely difficult activity and that is one reason there are so many crashes.

FCW and AEB would help save lives

So, one hope is that some of this technology will arrive, albeit piecemeal, in production vehicles we can purchase at a dealership. One system that offers great promise is Forward Collision Warning (FCW) and Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB).

These systems work together to prevent rear end collisions, which occur hundreds of thousands of times, with many causing severe injuries. The FWC senses a vehicle closing rapidly and the AEB applies the brakes to slow or stop the vehicle. Research involving a system designed by Volvo was able to reduce the rate of these collisions by 39 percent.

The research found that auto braking with the collision warning system was more effective than a warning system, as apparently human drivers were unable to react fast enough to prevent crashes. In addition, even when the system could not entirely prevent a crash, the slowing of the vehicle meant injuries were likely to be less severe.

Currently, 40 percent of vehicles may have this option available on some trim levels, but with this kind of effectiveness, it seems likely that NHTSA will mandate this capability on all vehicles.

With autonomous vehicles still years away from widespread use and the great number of deaths that still occur on our highways, it seems like the least they can do.