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A holistic approach to safety will speed AV adoption

April 01, 2021

By Corey Clothier

Pushing beyond onboard systems, holistic safety expands the idea of what makes vehicles safe and introduces a loop of nonstop improvement

Stantec GenerationAV™ External Consultant Andrew Smart contributed to this blog.

When either of us says that we work with autonomous vehicles (AVs), people almost always ask one thing: “Are they safe?” 

We love that question, because whether it comes from curiosity or skepticism, it means the person is trying to picture life with widespread AV use. And that means they’re open to the idea, even if they might not fully understand AV’s potential. (Because the public generally starts with vehicles, we focus on them here, but AV technology will also transform areas like product delivery, airport operations, and mining, among others.)

We welcome people’s openness to AVs precisely because the technology has so much potential to increase safety, accessibility, and sustainability in our transportation system. In 2020 in the US alone, 42,000 people died in accidents on streets and highways—mostly due to human error. AV safety aims to cut that appalling annual death toll and ultimately to contribute to a Vision Zero view of transportation.

But we also know that society can’t move from the early stages of a rapidly evolving technology to full AV integration unless the technology can win the public’s trust. A clear-eyed focus on safety represents the essential first step toward earning that trust.

Let’s zero in on the role holistic safety assessments play in assuring AV safety.

Taking a broader view than just the vehicle

When people ask, “are they safe?”, this generally reflects a desire to understand how a vehicle can assure security for passengers and pedestrians with no human in charge. The answer starts with active safety features people already know but might not see as related to AV: adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping, lane-centering, and automatic emergency braking.

But these systems don’t define AV safety by themselves. To use an analogy, if you looked at an autonomous vehicle through a standard camera lens, you’d see it perfectly well, but if you switched to a wide-angle lens, you’d see a lot of elements around it that have a direct bearing on its operation. A holistic assessment adds this wide-angle view of the environment in which a vehicle operates: the condition of the pavement, how well onboard cameras can identify signs and road markings, how pedestrians and cyclists behave around the vehicle, where the vehicle goes when it’s not operating, and even how it’s maintained.

Holistic assessments also introduce a second critical dimension: assessment of the safety culture within the organization that operates the AV. Who do they hire? How do they train the people they hire? Do they track and act on safety performance? Is every person in the organization committed to improving safety? True safety culture means far more than a few well-intended emails from the CEO; it means treating safety as a fundamental organizing principle that shapes operations and reporting with a goal of driving continuous improvement.

If AV technology aims to take humans out of the act of driving, how can it reproduce a dependable, repeatable ability to judge and react to a vehicle’s environment in real time? A robust safety culture keeps an organization focused squarely on the job of building such judgment into every system and operation. 

Constantly monitoring—and learning

Beyond the vehicle, the working environment, and safety culture, a holistic assessment entails multiple forms of safety checks.

First, we advise using best practices in aviation safety to ensure the AV is ready for daily operations and to minimize (and hopefully eliminate) human errors. We recommend completing and digitally recording checklists before, during, and after operations, much like commercial pilots. We also recommend monitoring the data on every trip an AV makes and using that data to feed a constant cycle of improving performance. When our clients test AVs, we carry out pretest or trip briefings and ensure operational readiness. We also subject every vehicle going out—whether on a test bed or a public street—to a post-trip review to examine how it performed and what was learned. Did the trip require a manual override by the human riding in and monitoring the car (aka “disengagement”)? What led to the override? Were there near-misses that didn’t require disengagement? What led to those? Did we discover any new or unusual driving scenarios?

Society can’t get to full AV integration without winning the public’s trust. A clear-eyed focus on safety represents the essential first step toward earning that trust.

A driver who runs a red light—whether or not she gets a ticket—experiences a brief wave of panic that makes her more vigilant at the next traffic signal. But how long will that vigilance last? When a vehicle encounters a problem on the road, we know how to make sure it does a better job of responding the next time. Through our partnership with dRISK, clients can incorporate proprietary datasets of the most challenging operating scenarios—edge cases—to make their AV systems even more responsive to the environment around them and to behave consistently every time. This continuous cycle of monitoring, assessing, and adjusting aims to build the functional equivalent of human judgment into operating systems.

Building the AV future by doubling down on safety

We make safety our top priority for many reasons, but two stand out. First, the public will demand it before they accept this technology into their daily lives. Second, saving lives represents one of the most important benefits—maybe the most important benefit—that automation will deliver.

When people ask us about safety, we know they mean the vehicles themselves. We also know that true safety requires a look at a far broader picture, one most people don’t think about. But we do, and we’ve developed the holistic safety assessment as a powerful tool to help our clients deepen their internal safety culture.

When we identify, evaluate, and mitigate the full range of safety risks, we help them infuse safety into every level of the technology. With safety integrated every step of the way, AV technology will create a lasting and positive impact for the people in our communities. 

  • Corey Clothier

    The future of mobility is Corey’s passion. A mobility strategist, Corey works to commercialize automated vehicle and other innovative approaches to improving mobility for our businesses, cities, governments, and industries.

    Contact Corey
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