'Intelligent' Vehicle Safety Claims Are Dubious

Consumers' Research Magazine, September 1994 | Go to article overview

'Intelligent' Vehicle Safety Claims Are Dubious


Three years ago Congress appropriated $659 million over six years to spur development of intelligent vehicle highway systems (IVHS). Often referred to as "smart cars" and "smart highways," IVHS encompasses a range of high-technology approaches that proponents claim will revolutionize our transportation system.

A few IVHS applications aren't revolutionary anymore. They're familiar. These include vehicles features, such as antilock brakes, and highway additions, such as electronic message boards that alert drivers to road conditions ahead. Some toll roads already have automatic collection systems that allow drivers to pay without stopping at booths.

These relatively simple applications are only the tip of the IVHS iceberg, according to proponents who envision fully automated highways moving platoons of vehicles down computer-controlled lanes at regulated speeds and intervals. Each vehicle would be equipped with on-board electronics to perform myriad functions from keeping the car moving smoothly in its platoon to warning the driver of a possible crash and even helping to locate a particular restaurant in an unfamiliar city.

Spurred by federal spending, the development of IVHS technologies is on a roll. But one of the main promises IVHS developers and their backers in Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation are making--namely, that thousands of lives can be saved every year--may go way beyond what can actually be delivered.

Freewheeling Safety Claims

IVHS proponents like Harry W. Matthews, Jr. of the Arthur D. Little consulting company talk about achieving "a collision-free state." Rodney Slater, head of the Federal Highway Administration, told Congress that the application of IVHS technologies can result in a "nearly accident-free driving environment." But such promises aren't backed by research. When IVHS proponents support their safety claims with statistics, the numbers aren't based on scientific analyses.

Mobility 2000, an organization that evolved into IVHS America--a group of developers that advises the federal government on IVHS--originally predicted that various technologies would reduce annual highway deaths by 19% by the year 2010. But the man responsible for this figure, Robert Ervin of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, says it represents "an enormous amount of guesswork" and has been incorrectly touted by groups "using it for their own purposes, without caveat."

By 1992, the 19% prediction was reduced to a goal of 8% fewer fatalities. But neither the 8% goal nor the 19% prediction is based on scientific research.

A source closely affiliated with IVHS America says this figure was already generating controversy among members of the organization when the plan was being drafted. "There were ongoing battles between people who really wanted to hype it up and those who really wanted to cool it," the source says. "I think people were concerned about selling IVHS...there was some hype and overestimation of claims."

George Parker, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA's) associate administrator for research and development, says NHTSA warned IVHS America not to make claims about benefits that couldn't be supported with scientific research. "We refused to endorse those numbers," he says, because "they couldn't back up their 8% with any analysis." IVHS America's response, Parker remembers, was that it's important to include death reduction estimates in the report because "it would sell the program."

The 8% figure isn't the only questionable one. Lester P. Lamm, president of IVHS America, boasted to Congress that FAST-TRAC in Oakland County, Michigan, has reduced rear-end collisions by 30%. In fact, this project could prove a benefit in terms of traffic management--but not as beneficial as Lamm estimates. The 30% figure is based on comparisons of raw crash data taken from police reports. …

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