Proponents have hailed self-driving technology as the next revolution in vehicle safety, potentially with bigger implications than seatbelts and airbags, however Nader predicts that such features will actually exacerbate problems caused by drivers who are not paying attention to the road.
“It’s leading to the emerging great hazard on the highway, which is distracted driving,” the safety advocate told Automotive News.
Nader argues that automakers are trying to turn cars into “entertainment arenas” and “mobile offices,” promoting technology that is not yet good enough to deal with all potential emergency situations. The limitations of current autonomous prototypes are well known, though Nader goes further in arguing that removing a person from the responsibility of driving will effectively reduce the driver’s experience and ability to deal with emergency situations.
“The driver is losing control to the software, and the more the driver loses control to the software, the less the driver is going to be able to control the car down the road,” he said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has pushed for more vehicles to integrate automatic emergency braking and other semi-autonomous features. The agency has stopped short of implementing widespread rules for fully self-driving vehicles, however, citing the need to resolve “technological issues as well as human performance issues” before moving forward.
Many advocates of autonomous technology would disagree with Nader’s assessment, likely arguing that collision-avoidance systems already save lives and a fully self-driving car would be much safer than the average human-piloted vehicle. Some view the technology as the next revolution in automotive safety, switching from an accident-survival mindset to a focus on avoiding accidents altogether.
Nader’s commentary coincides with the 50th anniversary of his pioneering work, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile. The book is credited with pressuring automakers to prioritize safety over styling in vehicles. Legislators soon passed legislation to make seatbelts a standard feature, setting the stage for the NHTSA’s formation just a few years later.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety several years ago released a video (embedded below) of a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air head-on collision against a 2009 Malibu, highlighting 50 years of safety improvements.