OHS Canada Magazine

Feature

Removing the driver from the driving equation

The thought of hopping into a car and being shuttled to one's destination without even having to steer sounds like a technological fantasy.


Will the driverless car technology help bolster workplace safety?
Will the driverless car technology help bolster workplace safety?

The thought of hopping into a car and being shuttled to one’s destination without even having to steer sounds like a technological fantasy.

But it may be just a matter of time before this technology becomes a reality as companies like Google are in the process of building vehicles that can drive themselves.

While the technology is still in its experimental phase, Sebastian Thrun, a professor at Stanford University in California and project lead on Google’s self-driving car, which racked up 200,000-plus kilometres on highways, says he believes that the technology has the potential to help reduce road fatalities.

Of the 939 work fatalities across Canada in 2009, the transportation and storage industry registered 96, the third highest after construction (235) and manufacturing (202). Figures from Statistics Canada indicate that as of September, 2011, there are approximately 848,000 Canadians working in the transportation and warehousing industry. Occupations that fall under this sector include truckers, deliverers, cabbies, bus drivers and material handlers.

So just what are the work-related safety implications of the driverless car technology?

Raul Rojas, professor of artificial intelligence at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany, believes that robotic cars would take human error out of the driving process. “The robot is a very simple-minded machine. If the car says it’s going to go straight, it’s going to go straight,” says Rojas, who is also head of the university’s AutoNOMOS self-driving car project, which did its first public test in September.

As the saying goes, to err is human. While collision data from the British Columbia Trucking Association indicates heavy commercial vehicles (HCVs) accounted for 4.3 per cent of all vehicle collisions in the province, human error (by either the HCV driver or the other vehicle driver), weather conditions and road design were contributing factors in the majority (95.4 per cent) of collisions involving HCVs.

Speeding, inattention, inexperience, impairment and fatigue may also contribute to road accidents, notes a 2009 report from the Trucking Safety Council of British Columbia.

This automation trend may already be perceptible as an increasing number of cars are equipped with adaptive cruise control, lane guidance systems and self-parking abilities.

“There are certain situations where the features that we implement in our vehicles are actually safer than what the driver can do because we can react more quickly than a driver,” says Dr. Ralf Herrtwich, director of driver assistance and Chassis Systems at Daimler AG in Berlin.

Herrtwich cites automated emergency braking systems in some buses as an example. “Whenever the driver fails to see something that’s happening in front of the buses, the assistance can kick in,” he says.

Until this promising technology becomes more common, mindfulness and basic precautions can go a long way in safeguarding drivers. Some of these protective measures include avoiding unrealistic delivery schedules, implementing a zero-tolerance policy toward distracted driving (such as cellphone use), and adopting safe driving practices that address issues such as fatigue and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, notes information from the trucking council.