But automakers also must mind the bottom line. The result: Today the same companies that promote safety often promote maximum horsepower, too.
Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says that this gives the industry a "schizophrenic" approach to safety.
"They're still selling performance. A lot of people value performance, and they're trying to market to those folks," Lund says. "But automakers and their suppliers are also the ones developing this [safety] technology."
Experts say that the split personality of automakers -- and the U.S. vehicle fleet -- will persist for decades. James Sayer, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, says that there will be a "mixed fleet" of self-driving and human-driven vehicles.
"No one's going to wave a magic wand and all of a sudden all the vehicles on the road are going to be fully automated," Sayer says. "We're going to deal with decades where we've got what's referred to as a mixed fleet of manually controlled, partially automated and autonomous vehicles all having to get along."
This will be tricky, he says. Drivers will have to coexist with self-driving vehicles that transport occupants safely and deliberately -- like the slow-lane car that most freeway drivers blow past.
Reactions to today's safety technology show the difference in driving styles, Sayer says. For instance, adaptive cruise control systems are programmed to leave a safe gap between a vehicle and the one in front of it -- the "time headway."
"We found that if you left a time headway of one second or more, cars would cut in," Sayer says. "And yet the rules are you should be leaving multiple seconds of headway.
"But people see that as an opportunity. They don't hesitate to drive that close to a vehicle."
If technology enforces a more rational -- some would say sedate -- style of travel, automakers will need to market safety rather than 0-to-60 acceleration. Mosquet predicts that consumers will fit into three groups:
1. Autonomous-drive enthusiasts who want the latest safety technology.
2. Motorists who want to drive themselves in a powerful vehicle.
3. Drivers who want a simple tech package that they can afford.
The last group will test automakers' marketing and product-development skills, as the companies try to figure out what such consumers will pay for, and what current features to leave out, he says.
"Those people are going to make new trade-offs," Mosquet says. "They're going to want a car that actually offers new things at the expense of existing things so that they can afford the product."
Automakers probably will have to educate consumers if the companies begin using safety as a selling point, experts say. Many of today's vehicle owners know little about safety technology, even if they drive a vehicle equipped with it.
"I think that's a big question," NHTSA's Rosekind says. "A lot of people right now aren't aware of what they've got in their vehicle."
One sales strategy is cropping up: Safety equipment as a provider of peace of mind.
A Lincoln MKX print ad, for instance, touts its four-camera system for monitoring surrounding traffic: "Let's finally feel like we're operating our vehicles with a little more awareness and a lot more confidence. We're not talking about just one camera. We're talking about four cameras with one mind. A vehicle that now has the ability to help us see 360 degrees all around us."
That sort of appeal will be essential to maintain the automobile's allure, says Toyota's Leroy. As other forms of mobility emerge, automakers will need to reassure customers that it's safe to drive a car.
"If you want to keep the attractiveness of the mobility in the car," Leroy says, "the car should not be perceived as something that can injure you."