KEITH CRAIN

Crash avoidance is a noble idea

COMMENTARY
Keith Crain is editor-in-chief of Automotive News
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For decades people in the aircraft industry have believed that for the most part airplane crashes were not survivable. So they spent all their time and energy creating systems for crash avoidance. It has been spectacularly successful; the safety record of commercial aircraft is remarkably good.

The government is now suggesting that perhaps the first step in creating that type of automotive environment would be to install transmitting devices in all vehicles sold in the United States, which over several decades would enable vehicles to communicate with one another to avoid accidents.

Anytime someone suggests avoiding accidents over crash survival, it seems to be a step in the right direction.

But transponders have been in airplanes for decades, and aircraft still cannot independently avoid midair crashes. The aviation industry still requires controllers on the ground to monitor aircraft positions and make sure there is enough separation for safety.

What may be a noble suggestion is probably an impractical solution to automotive collisions. Many safety experts are convinced that the ultimate safety device is eliminating the driver from the equation, and they might be right. However, no one in the auto industry is prepared to abandon the driver.

Certainly the research being done on driverless cars is a step in that direction, although I would rather see a sophisticated automotive autopilot that a driver monitors.

Car-to-car communication would probably require decades to implement because for it to be effective all vehicles on the road must be capable of communicating.

I think the goal of avoiding accidents should get more attention, but I understand the difficulty in achieving that.

A key part of the equation, which is seldom discussed publicly, is calculating the cost of saving a human life. A step can be inexpensive or cost millions of dollars, but it's hard to evaluate competing safety technologies if you won't even talk about effectiveness.

Right now adding technology to make automotive autopilots more effective and safer seems to be our best chance to decrease accidents dramatically.

The ability of manufacturers to design ever-safer vehicles has been remarkable, but as long as there are some crashes undoubtedly there also will be fatalities and injuries.

Let's hope that in the future someone will look at the cost for entire systems before discussing more mandated technology for the automobile.

You can reach Keith Crain at kcrain@crain.com.

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