EU looks to autonomous vehicles to restart stalled road safety program

Humans caused the bulk of the 26,000 deaths on EU roads last year

The European Union is looking to connected vehicles and autonomous driving to reduce traffic fatalities, after a disappointing year for road safety.

Last year, 26,000 died on European roads, up 1 percent on the previous year.

"The latest figures are disappointing. For the second year in a row, we have not managed to reduce the number of victims on our roads," said European Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc, presenting the EU's latest study of traffic accident statistics in Brussels on Thursday.

Disappointing though the rise is, EU roads are still among the safest in the world, with traffic fatalities down 17 percent since 2010, after a reduction of 43 percent in the previous decade.

But where statisticians might simply see a return to the mean (in which an exceptional fall is followed by an equally exceptional rise), European Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc sees a call to action.

"We need not only improvements but a serious shift," she said.

Bulc is concerned that the European Commission will miss its target, set in 2010, of halving road deaths in the EU by 2020.

To get back on track, Bulc envisions a three-pronged strategy: better law enforcement, particularly of speed restrictions; exchange of knowledge between member states; and the deployment of emerging technologies such as connected or autonomous vehicles.

The knowledge exchange is necessary to counter disparities between EU member states: Denmark, Greece, Spain and Portugal have all cut road deaths by over 30 percent since 2010, beating the 17 percent average. While that brings the annual road death rate in Denmark and Spain close to that of Sweden, at 27 per million inhabitants, there is more work to do in Greece and Portugal, where the rate is more than double that.

Talk is cheap, while technology costs money. But Bulc puts the social cost of traffic deaths and serious injuries in the EU at over €100 billion a year, making the potential return on investment substantial.

Technology, Bulc hopes, will make the vehicles themselves safer, by reducing the risk of driver error and distraction.

The EU has already mandated that new vehicles be fitted with E-call equipment that will alert emergency services if they are involved in an impact.

"We hope that will contribute to road safety," Bulc said.

The eCall program could be extended, she said. "We are testing additional new technologies that could possibly be integrated in future solutions."

But it's us that Bulc is most concerned about.

"We see the human factor is failing over and over again. I am seeking solutions where we can eliminate that," she said. "I am quite excited about connected vehicles and autonomous driving."

The EU is funding research into autonomous and connected vehicles, which warn one another when they are braking or when they detect hazards ahead.

If the EU is willing to invest in road safety, though, it will have to spend some of that money on improving basic infrastructure.

"Less and less money is being put into road safety. The roads are not maintained, the signaling is not to the required standards," Bulc said.

And that's not just a problem for humans. 

Volvo's North American CEO, Lex Kerssemakers, saw this first hand on Thursday, when one of his company's prototype autonomous vehicles declined to take control because it couldn't detect lane markings on roads around the Los Angeles Auto Show.

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