Since 2014, as the amount of software in cars increased, the number of highway traffic deaths both in the U.S, and other countries increased significantly. While we can not categorically blame faulty software for this increase, it is equally impossible for automakers to claim that all of this software is “saving lives”.
We just don’t know.
Highway Traffic Deaths Increased Substantially
What we do know is that as the amount and complexity of the software in our cars has increased exponentially, the number of highway traffic deaths has also increased.
According to Injury Facts (in the U.S.):
Despite these historic drops [since 1923], we cannot remain complacent. While motor-vehicle deaths and rates declined last year , since 2013 deaths have increased 11.4% and the mileage death rate has increased 3.4%.
National Safety Council, 2020
In 2015 the number of traffic fatalities jumped by the largest percentage in 50 years and continued to increase until just recently. And please note: this increase can’t be so easily dismissed as just a distracted or drunk driver issue. Something else is going on.
The cost of faulty software used to rest only with the Company
As a society, we tend to defer to the Technology Gods to razzle and dazzle us rather than insist on the tools and mechanisms to determine the impact of complex software on our safety and well-being. Only in the last 15 to 20 years have we seen an explosion in software that runs things that we put our bodies into and then race along at 70 m.p.h. and hope for the best.
In the 20th Century, corporate software development, test practices, and attitudes about investing in robust software safety practices evolved from building non-lethal technologies like accounting and billing systems. No regulations were required to insist that a company deliver a “safe” online ordering system, for example. If the company did a bad job, it was the company that suffered.
That’s not true today – sloppy software practices kill people.
But software flaws are too often blamed on the driver
All too often, when software fails, the driver gets blamed as in the case of Uber’s “self-driving” software mowing down a woman crossing the street in Arizona. And, of course, we all can recall that Toyota’s sudden unintended acceleration issues that were caused by software were squarely blamed on drivers for well over a decade.
How often does a software failure cause injury and death? How often does good software save a life?
We just don’t know.
And until we have transparent tools that police can use to investigate the cause of a crash across all makes and models of vehicles, it will continue to be too easy — and very wrong — for automakers to claim that their software is saving lives.
Beyond Software and the “Bad” Driver
There are, of course, a myriad of issues that create tragedies on the roads. Understanding that there is more to the road safety than just cheering for more software starts when we take a step back and look at the entire picture.