Can Self-Driving Cars Stop Attacks Like Charlottesville and Barcelona?

As if 100+ deaths on U.S. highways every day isn’t horrific enough, we are all too often reading and hearing about cars being intentionally used as weapons and seeing unbelievable images of victims on sidewalks that have been turned into killing fields.

Unfortunately, the list of these instances is growing. The attack Aug. 17 in Barcelona that saw 13 killed was just the most recent; Charlottesville, NC, and Columbus, OH, have been the scene of attacks as well. Since July of last year, vehicle-related assaults have claimed more than 100 lives in Nice, Berlin, Stockholm and London.

It may come as small comfort to know that advanced automotive safety technology, while not eliminating these instances, might be able to reduce the bloodshed. Automatic emergency braking systems monitor what is in front of a vehicle and apply the brakes when collisions appear imminent. This feature already may have saved lives.

The truck used in the attack in Berlin last December had AEB technology. Tragically, a dozen people were killed in the incident, but reports indicate the AEB system stopped the vehicle about 250 feet after initial impact, likely preventing additional fatalities.

These systems will be on more cars in the future. Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Safety Council and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced that 20 automakers have committed to making AEB a standard feature on new cars by 2022.

Admittedly, this is a longshot. It will be decades before AEB systems are found on most vehicles on our nation’s roads. And, as AEB is presumably not being designed with this use in mind, many current systems do not detect pedestrians or bicyclists. Finally, at least to this stage of AI development, technology is still not a match for human ingenuity; these devices can be disabled and misused.

But maybe a side benefit of this technology, deployed to shield us against distracted driving and other human errors, is that it might also protect us when more sinister circumstances arise.

Epstein is a former editor with THCB. This blog post first appeared in Safety First: The Blog of the National Safety Council

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