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Driverless cars can’t come soon enough

One day technology will prevent almost all tragedies on our roads. (Marshall Gorby/AP)
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We all know the tragedy of car accidents. Whether we’ve been in an accident ourselves, lost a friend or loved one or have known someone that’s suffered a loss, the pain of this kind of accident is one we’ve all experienced at some point. The saddest part is that many of these tragedies are due to a human error that could have been avoided.

Recently Nicholas Kristof wrote a touching article in the New York Times about Marina Keegan, who died in a car accident five days after graduating from Yale in 2012. The car she was in rolled over when her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel. A promising writer, her friends and family have now published a posthumous book of her essays, in which she poignantly writes, “I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.” Marina’s tragedy – and the tens of thousands of lives cut short each year by car accidents – saddens all of us. But it can also motivate us.

Human error, whether it’s distracted driving, drowsiness or other factors, accounts for more than 90 percent of accidents. Innovators are working tirelessly to end these needless tragedies once and for all. Already car manufacturers are equipping our vehicles with potentially life-saving technology to detect and prevent accidents. Soon, our roads will be traveled by fully driverless cars, which will take human error out of the equation.

Replacing today’s drivers with driverless cars won’t be easy. The very concept faces legal and societal hurdles as well as, in all likelihood, resistance from professionals whose businesses thrive on car mishaps. During a recent drive with my soon-to-be six-year-old son, we discussed how there will be far fewer car accidents when he starts driving. He asked me what tow truck operators will do. I asked him, “What do you think should happen?” He suggested that they be trained for a year for a different job. It’s tough to argue with that logic. Other businesses such as collision repair shops, insurance companies, emergency rooms, auto parts suppliers and others may also be disrupted. Professionals in each of those fields can find other work – but nothing can replace a human life.

Even now, while driverless cars remain a dream for the future, technology is creating tools to help avoid car accidents. Several car models now provide lane-drifting alarms or seat vibrators to warn drivers of impending danger. Other features include rearview camerasadaptive cruise control and even parallel parking assistance. Recently, I visited Visteon, a global automotive supplier, and saw prototype programs tracking eye and head movements. This technology not only tracks a driver’s focus, but also reduces the need to lean over to touch the dashboard to control car functions.

Technology can detect a person’s sobriety and prevent the car from starting if the driver is intoxicated. Other features being tested can monitor drivers’ concentration, and provide cues, warnings and information when drivers are not paying enough attention. All of this technology is designed to keep drivers focused and ultimately cut accidents due to driver distraction.

In the meantime, we all must do what we can to ensure drivers stay alert, focused on driving and aware of their environment. We must commit to safety ourselves and encourage others to do so. This means not driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, educating ourselves about the dangers of texting and driving, and encouraging sleepy drivers to pull over so they don’t fall asleep behind the wheel. Driving is a privilege and safety on the road is everyone’s responsibility.

Someday soon, driving deaths will drop to near zero. As technology continues to improve, stories such as Marina Keegan’s will be a sad thing of the past. Until then, we must make smart choices. Government can spur innovation by encouraging use of products which focus on driver safety and alertness, but they should avoid mandating any specific technology or performance standards.

Technology moves quickly and good ideas cannot be stifled by bureaucracy, but until we get to driverless cars, technology alone keeps us safe on the roads. Let’s do what we can to prepare for the future, prevent tragedy and ensure long lives for ourselves and our loved ones by staying alert and focused, and by choosing cars that help us do both, while avoiding using products which distract us while driving.

Shapiro is president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.