A pandemic infects, harms and kills millions of people around the world. Thanks to rapidly advancing technology, our ability to create vaccines that promise to prevent these unnecessary infections and deaths is underway. The critical step is rapid vaccine distribution — the last mile — to protect the public from COVID-19's harm, while ensuring that the vaccines are safe and effective.
Similarly, motor vehicle-related injuries and deaths mirror what we have seen with the virus in the past year. These injuries and deaths claim more than 1.35 million lives globally each year, as many as 3,700 people daily, according to the World Health Organization, making these the eighth-leading cause of death globally and the single leading cause of death for people ages 5 to 29. Up to 50 million people are injured annually, often with lifelong disability.
As motor vehicles have moved from mechanical to increasingly sophisticated digital machines, rapidly advancing technology provides a tremendous opportunity to minimize and potentially eliminate these health impacts. Technologies such as antilock brakes, advanced airbags and crash sensors, forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking have all contributed to a trend of decreased crashes and bodily injuries.
These health and safety gains have been slowing in recent years, leading to a search for even more effective safety solutions. NHTSA predicts that without continued improvement in current safety performance, fatalities and injuries could increase dramatically as vehicle mileage increases.
NHTSA research demonstrates that 94 percent of motor vehicle crashes are caused by human error. Dramatic changes in technology now provide an opportunity for development of autonomous vehicles and a connected highway infrastructure that, as a system, can radically impact these numbers and provide additional societal benefits.
The key is to ensure a safe path forward and properly get these vehicles to the public to achieve these benefits.
Lessons from COVID-19 vaccine development and distribution can provide some valuable lessons.
- Balancing speed with safety. The Food and Drug Administration vaccine approval process requires three phases of rigorous testing that demonstrate safety and effectiveness before drugs can be considered for approval and delivered for use by the public.
While the FDA expedited the process through Emergency Use Authorization, these safety, quality and effectiveness standards were still required. Don't lower the bar.
- Transparency is important. In the medical world, research data and analysis of new treatments are published in peer-reviewed journals for transparency and shared learning.
That is how medicine advances and identifies what works and doesn't work when applying the science to patients. For example, Moderna submitted its study results to peer review of safety and effectiveness by outside physicians and scientists while retaining its proprietary information. After review for scientific validity and analysis, its clinical results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Vaccines in development that had potentially adverse reactions were stopped and investigated before moving forward.
Those companies' products may not be the first to market, but they may end up being the safest and most effective. Facts and transparency matter.
- Building public trust is the key to true effectiveness. Even the best vaccines are ineffective if the public will not accept them.
A significant portion of the American public, regardless of political ideology, are hesitant to be vaccinated because of concerns about politicization of the approval process, eroding public confidence. Minority groups, who have suffered a disproportionate share of infections and deaths, express reluctance because of low trust in many social institutions and the government.
By the same measure, a large percentage of the American public expresses concerns about AVs, with even 20 percent stating that they will never be safe. No one wants to be a beta test nor guinea pig. Outreach, inclusion and openness are critical to increased acceptance.
- Commit to making safety the covenant with the public. All physicians take an oath to "do no harm" as part of their covenant with the public.
Physicians also hold other physicians accountable for their clinical practice and behavior, can investigate complaints or concerns and can suspend or remove a physician's license if needed. The commitment to quality and safety permeates all levels of health care organizations, using data-driven dashboards to continually measure organizational, facility and individual provider performance.
Such a covenant is not traditional for companies in the AV industry, but it should be. If the AV industry wants to position itself as committed to the public's health and safety, it should act like it. It is an essential component of facilitating the path forward in a socially conscious, consumer-driven world. This is not a liability issue but a commitment issue.
As an emergency physician, I routinely make life-or-death decisions. The key, for the patient, is that my profession has put the interest of the public ahead of self or company interest. A committed culture of safety, all the way to the CEO, matters. Own it.
As we move forward in 2021, the former Wild West of AV development and overhype that existed just a few years ago is being replaced with a more thoughtful, deliberative approach. It will take renewing industry commitment, establishing strong safety cultures, engaging the public on their terms and leveraging collaboration among multiple disciplines to expedite the development and distribution of AVs.
Implementing lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic can help the AV industry more effectively and successfully address the annual pandemic of motor vehicle deaths and injuries.