Ron Medford, director of safety for Google's self-driving car program, said that “taking the driver out of the loop” is necessary. He said that human error causes more than 90 percent of accidents, with impaired driving responsible for 25 percent.
“The idea of preventing a crash, not building a structure around you, should be the vision someday,” he said.
In the short term, Mr. Medford added, “it's going to take both. You can't really design crash protection sufficiently so that you won't have any deaths.”
20-30 year rollout
Even the most zealous advocates of safety technology acknowledge a difficult reality. With nearly 260 million light vehicles on U.S. roads and the average vehicle age at 11.5 years, a total makeover of the U.S. fleet won't happen soon.
If the crash-prevention systems follow the usual timetable, Mr. Rosekind said, “It takes 20 to 30 years for new technology to penetrate the fleet.”
But inertia shouldn't be an excuse, advocates say. Lawrence Burns, an industry consultant and former General Motors Co. head of R&D, said tolerance for traffic deaths is an outdated attitude.
“The acceptance of roadway fatalities for over a century is really amazing, if you think about it,” Mr. Burns said. “It's not that the industry hasn't improved safety. It has, but the improvement has been incremental.”
GM studies in 2003-04 raised the possibility of using vehicle-to-vehicle communication and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication to greatly improve safety, he said. The rise of computerized controls and onboard information technology — better sensors, processors, data storage, mapping — make it all the more possible.
Xavier Mosquet, senior partner for Boston Consulting Group, said a 2015 study by the company showed that full use of technologies now on vehicles could cut U.S. traffic deaths by 9,900 per year.
“I'm not talking about autonomous cars. I'm talking about today's advanced driver-assistance systems, what we call active safety,” Mr. Mosquet said. “This is not futuristic. This is today. So we could already save 10,000 lives on our roads with available technologies.”
Government and insurance incentives might be needed to increase their use, he said. But Mr. Mosquet said cutting traffic deaths should be a goal on a par with corporate average fuel economy: “There's a CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standard, but there's no equivalent for safety.”
“The first priority'
Auto makers say they are working to add safety systems to real-world driving. Didier Leroy, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Corp., said that “We are focusing much more on this point than on pure autonomous driving.
“Our first target is not to make sure people can take a seat in the rear seat and read the newspaper,” Mr. Leroy said. “It is just to make sure that they will have no fatality, no crash, no accident and improve safety. This is absolutely the first priority for us.”