Driverless Cars Could Make America's Rural Roads Safer

(Bloomberg View) -- This week, the London Assembly’s Transport Committee reported on the city’s approaches to new transportation technologies, concluding that connected and autonomous cars “won’t be on the road until the 2030s at least.” That’s a long wait for many who hope autonomous vehicles will make roads safer, but the cars could arrive far earlier somewhere else: the rural U.S. And when they do, the benefits will be immediate.

The deadliest state for road crashes in 2015 was Wyoming, with nearly 25 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute's Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle. The safest was the District of Columbia, with only 3.4 deaths per 100,000 people.

Wyoming has the dubious distinction of being the top state for both miles driven and number of fatalities per capita. The second- and third-most deadly states for driving, Mississippi and Montana, are also in the top 10 for miles driven. Of the 10 states where people drive the most per capita, six are also in the top 10 for road fatalities.

Driverless Cars Could Make America's Rural Roads Safer

On a population-weighted basis, driving is deadliest in large states with relatively few people. Meanwhile, cities have an increasing number of options for getting around, in particular ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. Such services not only offer transportation for the less able but also keep impaired drivers off the road: A 2017 study from the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that avoiding getting behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol is a top reason that both urban and suburban passengers use ride-hailing services. Satisfying that need is quite easy in Los Angeles; it is much harder in Wyoming (though Uber does have a presence in its more populated areas).

It's just one more reason to automate country driving first. For a machine, navigating a city, a suburb or even a cul-de-sac has ample technical challenges. Maintaining a lane on a ribbon of empty blacktop in a rural area is far easier, and many vehicles are already capable of maintaining distances from other vehicles, staying in lanes and obeying posted speed limits.

Automating all but the first and last miles of long-haul driving in the least-safe driving states could provide a benefit to public health as great as fighting major diseases. 

A bonus chart this week: U.S. driving is well into record territory. Miles driven peaked in late 2007 at just over 3 trillion miles per year before declining and staying flat until 2014, then rising again to the most recent record of 3.2 trillion miles driven in the past 12 months.

Driverless Cars Could Make America's Rural Roads Safer

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Nathaniel Bullard is an energy analyst, covering technology and business model innovation and system-wide resource transitions.

To contact the author of this story: Nathaniel Bullard at nbullard@bloomberg.net.

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