Cars that care, chapter 1: The problem – drivers cause the most accidents

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The joy of driving. Many automakers have built their brand around this vision. Generation after generation comes of age and stakes their claim to the freedom to go where they want in vehicles. The volume of news stories about automated and autonomous vehicle testing is increasing daily, some would have you believe the that the days of taking your own car for a ride will soon be in the rear-view mirror.

Too early for autonomous vehicles to save drivers

The reality is that while autonomous driving continues to develop at pace, and will bring with it many advantages, it will take some time for its widespread deployment to make an impact against the total number of cars on the road today. In IBM’s recently published Institute of Business Value (IBV) Study Automotive 2025: Industry without Borders, we interviewed 175 executives across the automotive industry. We found that automated driving is coming on fast and furious, but fully autonomous vehicles will likely still only have limited exposure over the next decade. Realistically, we’re looking at the 2030’s before people making decisions behind the wheel will substantially decline. Recently, one of the premium automotive brands concurred.

figure 1 auto vehicle use 2025 graphic

fig 1. Mainstream vehicle use by 2025

Of course, along with the freedom of driving comes substantial risk. In 2015, the most recent year of full U.S. statistics, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that there were nearly 6.3m reported crashes in which over 35k people were killed and over 2.4m people injured. This represents an uptick over recent years as they’re the highest reported since 2008. The 6.3m accidents are the highest on record in the U.S. and represent the fifth consecutive years of growth.

Drivers – the primary cause of accidents

Despite all the safety technology that the automotive industry continues to add to their vehicles, the primary cause of all these accidents is…wait for it…the driver!  NHTSA further analyzed the root cause of a full year of accidents and an astounding ninety-four percent pointed to some manner of driver error. Recognition and decision errors accounted for a substantial majority of these accidents.

fig 2.Driver delated critical reasons for crash causation

Another layer of information in understanding these accidents is to consider the driver’s frame of mind as they’re behind the wheel.  When drivers are in an emotional state, whether positive or negative emotions, they dramatically increase the likelihood of getting into an accident.  In fact, they’re ten times more likely to have one.  Emotions lead to distraction which lead to mistakes.

Even excellent drivers are at risk

Even excellent drivers falter when they’re emotionally pre-occupied. Drivers whose attention is elsewhere, make three general categories of mistakes:

  1. Risky behavior such as abrupt lane changes, speeding, or moving too slowly
  2. Reduced reaction times for turns or braking
  3. Inattentiveness where they forget to use turn signals and drift left and right in and across lanes

Could cars that care keep drivers safer?

Your car can detect through its sensor systems when it is being driven erratically and its driver may have other things on their mind. All the driving behavior symptoms described are known by today’s vehicles. So perhaps we can trust the axiom; “a problem well stated is half-solved”. If cars also understood the driver’s emotional state then it could take steps to aid their capability and keep everyone in the car safer.

To find out more, visit our ‘Cars that Care’ site.

You can now also read Chapter 2:  The Diagnosis and Chapter 3: The Remedy


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Russell Gowers

I think a really important use case here would be when drivers fall asleep at the wheel. Current systems can only adapt to the result of falling asleep (lane deviation etc) but if you could detect a heart rate stabilising to approx resting HR, plus shallower breathing, you could turn on a haptic warning of some sort.


Detlev Kuntze

Why do we need to detect a special emotional situation of the driver?
If a driver is changing lanes permanently without using the turn signal or if he does not check for an appropriate distance to the car infront of his vehicle or does not care of speed limits, he should get an appropriate feedback. This is completely independent of his mood. If he is a risk for other people on the street, he should be aware of it.


    Kal Gyimesi

    Detlev,… as the post indicates, accidents are trending upward and human error is by far the largest component. So the active safety systems are having only limited effect. You’re applying rational reasoning that makes sense to decision-making that a driver “should” do when they’re emotional distracted and not paying attention. Drivers unfortunately act irrationally when they’re emotional.

    Secondly, understanding the driver’s frame of mind is important to being able to find ways to help them and possibly neutralize their emotions, keeping them safer. Ultimately this can be expanded to elevate the entire experience in the car. Digitally personalizing the in-vehicle experience, starting with safety, will be a point of differentiation for automakers as other historical selling points for cars are being commoditized.

    I encourage you to also check out Chapter 2 and especially Chapter 3 of this series as I further explain our thinking…. please feel free to reach out to me directly if you’d like to keep discussing.

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