David Ward on Self-Driving Cars: ‘Don’t Put the Autonomous Cart Before the Horse’

We can’t help but be enticed by the concept of self-driving cars. What will they look like? How will they change our lives? How will they change our cities?

David Ward, secretary general of the Global New Car Assessment Program, a non-profit that promotes vehicle safety standards, says there is “no doubt that autonomous vehicles will contribute” to making our cities safer and healthier. He sees a thrilling potential in autonomous vehicles (AVs) to join forces with electrification, shared transport services and safety technologies.

But in an interview for WRI Ross Center’s Cities Research Seminar Series, he also says we shouldn’t let the AV frenzy sidetrack us from simpler changes that can make our roads safer and air cleaner right now.

Ward points to “market-ready” technologies like crash-avoidance systems and intelligent speed adaptation. These systems, he contends, will do the most to reduce fatalities and serious injuries through at least 2030. “The reality,” he says, “is that autonomous vehicles will not have any impact on [reducing fatalities in that timeframe] at all.”

Ward emphasizes that particularly for middle- and lower-income countries, where AVs likely won’t hit the streets “for decades,” prioritizing readily implementable technologies and policies is “absolutely crucial.” Cities in the global south are grappling with the fastest rates of urbanization, the fewest resources per capita, and escalating numbers of road deaths and injuries.

The “safe system” method, a holistic approach to road safety that Ward endorses with the Towards Zero Foundation, argues that human needs and health should be at the crux of road design and vehicle standards, and that road and vehicle designers share responsibility with users for what happens on roads. New research from WRI Ross Center and the Global Road Safety Facility of the World Bank shows the efficacy of the safe system approach through historical case studies and the link between safe roads and environmental, economic and health benefits.

The bottom line is that the impact of AVs on safety will be negligible if we don’t harness them in concert with other new technologies and approaches to transport – an “integration of measures,” says Ward. He points out that AVs’ potential for air pollution benefits – through encouraging more electric vehicles and more shared rides – similarly relies on AVs entering an urban space that has been shaped by policy.

“Yes, [AVs] have a role to play,” Ward says, “but we need to think of how to evolve towards greater autonomy in a way that really delivers the benefits that we need in terms of safety, emissions and environmental sustainability.”

According to Ward, we need a “twin track” of government regulation and consistent generation of public demand for sustainable transport options. He particularly emphasizes the need to package AVs as part of shared mobility systems. By encouraging people to shift their mobility patterns and use multiple modes of transport, cities can not only cut the number of vehicles on streets and reduce pollution and emissions, but improve the accessibility of transport for all residents.

“The way in which we design cities, the layout of cities, is at least as important as the technology of the vehicles,” Ward says.

Hillary Smith is an intern on the communications team for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.