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25th Annual International Technical Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles (ESV)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation
25th Annual International Technical Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles (ESV)
Monday, June 5, 2017


Thank you, Jack [Danielson].

I am so pleased to be here on the first day of ESV 2017.  Let me thank Nat Beuse, Associate Administrator for Vehicle Safety, and his team for putting together this conference.

This is an exciting time to be working in the field of automotive safety!

Right here, in the city where Henry Ford helped make the automobile available to everyone, the best minds in vehicle safety are discussing the reinvention of the automobile itself.

We’ve come a long way since the Model T first rolled off a Ford assembly line, only a few miles away from here.

The progress in life-saving automotive technology has been especially remarkable over the past four decades.

In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, safety improved steadily.  Then, in the 1990s, there was an enormous leap forward when driver assistance technologies were introduced.

Today, these technologies have progressed to the point where crash avoidance technologies are now standard on all new vehicles.  That’s a real milestone.

Even more advanced safety features—including forward collision warming and automatic emergency braking-- are now finding their way into the fleet.

All these features have helped save more than 600,000 lives since the 1960s.

This conference will address the next great advances in vehicle safety technology—everything from occupant protection and biomechanics, to electronic cybersecurity and advanced crash avoidance systems.

These advances are important, because today --after several years of declining highway fatalities-- the numbers are beginning to rise again.   In the first nine months of 2016, fatalities increased by eight percent over the previous year. 

In 2015-- the last year for which we have complete data-- 35,092 people lost their lives on the highways. That’s an increase of more than 7 percent over the previous year. The causes are attributed to the following:

  • More than 10,000 fatalities involved drinking and driving; 
  • 10,000 fatalities involved drivers and passengers who refused to buckle up;
  • Another 2,000 were motorcyclists who did not wear helmets; 
  • 3,000 crashes involved distracted drivers; and,
  • Speeding was a key factor in 10,000 highway fatalities.

The simple fact is this: staying safe on the road largely comes down to the choices people make when they drive, ride and walk.

The good news is that research shows behavior can change over time. Last year, for example, our country reached 90 percent seat belt use. That’s an incredible accomplishment considering that 20 years ago less than 70 percent of Americans regularly used their seat belts.  As a result, the fatality rate has decreased by half since the early 1980s.

But there is still a long way to go. Research shows that the causes of highway fatalities differ according to region, population density, resource availability and many other factors. So while creating a framework to encourage new technologies, the Department will continue to work with the states to develop customized, multi-pronged approaches to address highway safety.  That’s also a goal of the Department’s Road to Zero Coalition, which provides grants to help develop and deploy innovative safe system strategies.   And looking to the future, the Coalition is developing a vision for reaching zero traffic deaths in 30 years.          

But having said that, there is one constant: the vast majority of vehicle crashes—94 percent—are due to human error. That’s why automated vehicle systems are so potentially transformative.  They could save tens of thousands of lives by addressing the human factors that cause accidents.  The Department has a role to play by ensuring the safe development, testing, and deployment of automated vehicle technologies.

As many of you may know, NHTSA issued a Federal Automated Vehicle Policy in September of 2016. As promised, the Department is reviewing and updating this policy to incorporate feedback and improvements recommended by numerous stakeholders.  NHTSA has been asked to accelerate the process of finalizing the updated voluntary framework so there is clarity among those who look to the Department for guidance.  The new automated vehicle guidance will replace the previous document and will be released in the next few months, if not sooner.  It will point to a path forward for the safe deployment of automated vehicles by:

  • supporting industry innovation and encouraging open communication with the public and with stakeholders;
  • making Department processes more nimble to help match the pace of private sector innovation; and,
  • encouraging new entrants and ideas that deliver safer vehicles.

As mentioned earlier, automated vehicle technology has the potential to save lives by addressing the human factors that cause crashes.  But the benefits of automated vehicle systems extend beyond safety.

American motorists currently spend more than 6.9 billion—yes billion-- hours a year sitting in traffic, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

That amounts to more than $300 billion in wasted time and fuel.  Reclaiming this time and money will put more money in the taxpayers’ pockets and give them more time with their families.

And just as Henry Ford help democratize the automobile, automated technology may give traditionally underserved communities-- especially senior citizens and people with disabilities—greater access to transportation.  In the future, they will no longer be dependent upon uncertain transport alternatives to get them to the doctor, to the market or to anywhere else they need to go.  

A discussion of the future of automated vehicles, however, would not be complete without acknowledging other key factors.   Recent polls have shown that the biggest obstacle to the deployment of automated vehicles is the lack of public acceptance. Creativity and innovation are part of the great genius of America—one of its hallmarks.  We must safeguard and nurture this legacy.  But it is also critical that Silicon Valley and other innovators step up and share with the public their understanding of this new technology, and address legitimate public concerns about safety and privacy.

The future of automated vehicles is so full of promise.

It’s a future where vehicles increasingly help us avoid crashes.

Where the time spent commuting is dramatically reduced.

Where millions more are offered the freedom of the open road.

And, most importantly, where highway fatalities and injuries are dramatically reduced.

That’s the potential of automated vehicle technologies—one that you are helping to build and shape.

So thank you for all that you are doing to advance the cause of vehicle safety technology. And thank you for helping to deliver a safer, more efficient transportation future for all Americans.

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