Zero Annual Traffic Deaths, A New Approach in Automotive Thinking


Over 37,000 people die in road collisions each year, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel. James Kuffner, Chief Technology Officer at the Toyota Research Institute, is one of many experts around the world that are a proposing a new goal for the auto industry. Zero traffic deaths.

Kuffner makes the claim that within a decade “The probability of being killed in a traffic accident would be smaller than being killed by lightning.” Other safety advocates are skeptical.

In order to get close to eliminating traffic accident related deaths within the near future, the automotive industry would have to speed the usual pace of implementing new safety technologies to vehicles. The new expectation would need a drastic change to the regulation and current design of vehicles in production, primarily with operation design. In regards to new safety technology, Kuffner puts it simply “The longer it isn’t deployed, the more people die.”

The problem with automotive safety isn’t that the technology doesn’t exist. The problem with automotive safety is that “It takes 20 to 30 years for new technology to penetrate the fleet.” says Mark Rosekind, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The last few decades have provided drivers with features such as rear cameras, safety restraint indicators, forward-collision warning, and adaptive cruise control. Each of these features have taken several years to become standard in the automotive industry.

Lawrence Burns, former head of GM’s research and design team says “The acceptance of roadway fatalities for over a century is really amazing, if you think about it. It’s not that the industry hasn’t improved safety. It has, but the improvement has been incremental.”

Xavier Mosquet, senior partner for Boston Consulting Group, claims that if all the safety technologies available today were used by cars on the road today, the U.S. traffic deaths would be cut by 9,900 per year. “This is not futuristic. This is today. So we could already save 10,000 lives on our roads with available technologies.” Says Mosquet.

Zero by 2020

The auto manufacturer Volvo, a company that prides itself on high safety ratings, confidently pledges that no one will die in an accident in a new Volvo car by 2020. When asked about the new “zero traffic death” goal Peter Mertens, Chief of Volvo research and design, said “By 2020, I think we have a good chance to be damn close to it.” Due to vehicle-to-vehicle communications and automatization of cars, it is possible to to eliminate traffic death, according to Merten.  Autonomous cars eliminate the factor of human error, a factor that is responsible for 90 percent of all car crashes.

With new automotive competitors emerging, such as Apple and Google, the push to implement new safety design may be even greater for current auto manufacturers. The marketing departments of many auto companies are expected to change selling points in what is referred to as a “schizophrenic” way of approaching marketing. Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, states that auto safety developers are “Still selling performance. A lot of people value performance, and they’re trying to market to those folks. But automakers and their suppliers are also the ones developing this [safety] technology.” Mosquet predicts that drivers will fit into one of three categories:

  1. Autonomous-drive enthusiasts who want the latest in safety technology.
  2. Motorists who want to drive themselves in a powerful vehicle.
  3. Drivers who want a simple tech package that they can afford.

Marketing to each category will be a challenge to auto manufacturing companies. It’s hard to market one brand of car to people who have to take it slow on freeways while other drivers race by, and simultaneously market to people who want a powerful car that can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a second. Other consumers may want to make certain trade-offs with their vehicles’ features to make it more affordable. That puts a challenging constraint on design teams and manufacturers to make the cars that are both affordable, yet still have the necessary features to make the car safe. The auto manufacturers may have to educate many people on the new features within their cars, as many motorists today are unaware of current safety technology, even if their vehicles are equipped with it.

The movement of change is evident in the automotive world. Rosekind puts it as “We’re watching the future get created right in front of us.”

For further reading on the effects of the “zero traffic deaths” policy visit:


Zac Pingle About Zac Pingle

Zac Pingle was born in Florida, and grew up in several places across the United States. From a young age, Zac developed a taste for writing, reading under trees and getting into trouble. Currently, Zac resides in Oregon as a college student where he aspires to become an English professor.