The road rage this spring has been all about driverless cars.
General Motors, Uber, Ford and Waymo have all been racing to test and perfect driverless transportation in recent years.
Add to that another interested party: The Pentagon.
At a Capitol hearing last month, Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told lawmakers “We’re going to have self-driving vehicles in theater for the Army before we’ll have self-driving cars on the streets. But the core technologies will be the same.”
Griffin told congressional members the stakes for the military are high because 52 percent of casualties in combat zones can be attributed to military personnel delivering food, fuel and logistics — which could be reduced significantly with driverless vehicles.
“You’re in a very vulnerable position when you’re doing that kind of activity,” Griffin said. “If that can be done by an automated unmanned vehicle with a relatively simple AI (artificial intelligence) driving algorithm where I don’t have to worry about pedestrians and road signs and all of that, why wouldn’t I do that?”
And the Pentagon is also looking at developing weaponized driverless vehicles in combat as well — much as they already use drones for combat missions.
With the weight and the bankroll of the U.S. military behind it, that can only mean the impetus for driverless car development will only accelerate in the coming years.
Yes, much needs to be done in working out the flaws and making driverless cars sufficiently safe, but there are days when we’re driving down the highway or on city streets and it sometimes seems like a war zone here with distracted, impaired, aggressive or just impetuous drivers.
Dave Cieslewicz, former mayor of Madison and director emeritus of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation, put it this way: “Automated vehicles don’t drink and drive, they don’t look at their cellphones, they don’t fall asleep and they aren’t subject to road rage.”
He made the remarks recently to a steering committee appointed by Gov. Scott Walker to examine the advent of self-driving vehicles and state policies in their use.
Madison itself has become a testing track for driverless cars and is home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds — one of 10 federally designated labs testing driverless vehicle technology.
What do we have to gain? Lots.
Consider this: In 2016, 40,200 people in the United States died in accidents involving motor vehicles, a 6 percent rise from the year before. In 2015, the fatality rate went up 7 percent, which gave the U.S. the largest two-year increase in more than 50 years.
How can this be happening with all the advances in car safety technology — like airbags, electronic skid controls, lidar and rearview cameras? Some auto experts blame the rise in cellphones that distract drivers with all kinds of apps and calling features that take drivers’ eyes off the road.
Wisconsin echoes that trend with 11,032 injuries and 103 deaths — an increase of 10 percent over 2015 — related to inattentive driving in 2016, according to a recent Wisconsin State Journal editorial. Top that off with the 143 deaths and 2,933 injuries that were alcohol related that year.
So, yes, there is room for improvement — and driverless cars pose the promise of lowering those death and injury rates by significant numbers.
Yes, we know that some — perhaps many — drivers will be dragged kicking and screaming into this next phase of transportation technology. We know of drivers — many drivers — who insist on being the one behind the wheel of the car and break out into a cold sweat when they occasionally find themselves in the passenger seat, gripping the armrest and pumping a phantom brake.
They’ll survive — and, more importantly, so will others. Just give them a buggy whip to teeth on and ease their anxiety.
Will the Pentagon be able to cut its combat fatalities by 52 percent? Probably not, but they will probably make significant reductions. And Cieslewicz cited a Wisconsin study in 2015-16 by the Bike Fed, that analyzed 26 fatal crashes between bikes and motor vehicles, that concluded 15 of the deaths could have been prevented if the vehicles had been self-driving. That’s 57 percent.
Driverless vehicles are coming. The Pentagon says so.
In 2015, the fatality rate went up 7 percent, which gave the U.S. the largest two-year increase in more than 50 years. How can this be happening with all the advances in car safety technology — like airbags, electronic skid controls, lidar and rearview cameras? Some auto experts blame the rise in cell phones that distract drivers with all kinds of apps and calling features that take drivers’ eyes off the road.