COVID-19 shows we need a broader definition of safe mobility

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Tim Dawkins, Project Lead, Automotive and Autonomous Mobility, World Economic Forum & Michelle Avary, Head of Automotive and Autonomous Mobility, World Economic Forum


  • We must redefine “safe mobility” beyond reducing vehicular crashes to consider factors such as biosafety and public safety to eliminate risks to drivers and passengers.
  • A safer future of mobility requires maximizing the use of automated driving systems to support, augment and replace human drivers where appropriate.
Safety is an intrinsic, essential part of any successful mobility service, but COVID-19 has forced us to re-assess what safety means. The crisis has revealed three core areas where mobility can be strengthened. Addressing these issues will mean expanding the notion of safe mobility for everyone going forward.

Protecting drivers
With fewer people driving every day as a result of physical distancing measures, one might expect fewer road accidents. Unfortunately, as a byproduct of a 40% decline in traffic, there has been a drastic increase in speeding, with law enforcement agencies across the US and Europe all noting increases in drivers flouting the law, while some police forces admit that they are relaxing enforcement of speeding altogether to reallocate their efforts elsewhere.

Normally, reductions in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) would correspond to a reduction in the number of car crashes, but it seems that the increase in speeding is creating some worrying spikes in fatal accidents and accidents involving vulnerable road users, and road fatality rates are not falling in line with the with reductions in VMT.

Prior to shelter in place orders, road crashes were already causing more than 1.3 million deaths and 50 million injuries every year, according to the FIA. When fatalities occur in other types of travel such as rail, aviation or shipping, it is an exceptional event, a tragedy. Unfortunately, with road fatalities, thousands of deaths every day are an accepted norm.

This doesn’t need to be the case. If we push forward and faster with driver assistance technologies and highly automated driving systems, and demonstrate they are safer in numerous ways than the current status quo, we are not only reassessing what safety means, we are delivering safer mobility. Additionally, safe roads should not only concern reduced vehicular fatalities. Safety should encompass the vehicle’s environmental impact and creating safe use of shared public space.

Retaining users

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is showing us that our current mobility services – whether ride-hailing, rental bikes or mass transit – fail rapidly during a public health crisis out of sheer unpreparedness for such a shock to the system. It is entirely conceivable that post-COVID, we will see consumer attitudes swing back toward private cars and away from more sustainable shared mobility solutions. Retaining the use of shared mobility is essential, not just because it reduces the number of cars on the road, thereby avoiding accidents, but for many, public transport is the only option for their commute. Ridership and revenue must recover in order to keep the system running.

In order to prevent this regression, we need to expand the definition of safe mobility to encompass the safety of the occupants and protect the health of the greater public. Ideally, this should address concerns stemming from the pandemic, such as ensuring the biosafety of passengers, and establishing cross-sector agreement on maintaining the cleanliness of the vehicles, in addition to the current safety focus on engineering and reliability.

Deploying automated vehicles

COVID-19 should serve as a call-to-action for automated driving systems. We need to consider moving faster to deploy automated systems to solve specific problems. For example, can automated delivery vehicles be deployed to areas under lock down to deliver critical supplies, thereby limiting exposure to drivers and residents alike? Can AVs be deployed to ferry biohazardous goods like test samples, thereby limiting exposure to drivers? Can highly automated driving systems augment transit services, thereby keeping key bus lines operational and available for essential workers for longer hours and reducing exposure to transit drivers?

There are strategic tensions inherent in these considerations. If we look to deploy highly automated driving systems to replace bus drivers, are you doing so to protect drivers’ biosafety or are we shrinking employment opportunities? Both can be true, but one can be a challenging sell at a time when millions are losing their jobs. Right now, there is a need to keep public transit functioning in order for essential workers to get to work. This does not mean that bus drivers should be put in harm’s way unnecessarily.

Moreover, as AV operators look ahead and study how to resume AV development operations, we should consider where and how to deploy these vehicles to ensure the benefits of these solutions are maximized in the interests of society, without compromising the biosecurity of everyone.

“If we want to ensure our progress is not lost, a new approach to safety is essential.”

—Tim Dawkins

Seeking answers

In order to develop actionable solutions, we need to address the unanswered questions and consider the needs of industry, policymakers and users alike. For example, will we need to continue physical distancing measures on transit for years to come? If so, how can we do this and still ensure financial viability of different modes?

Additionally, will cleaning standards need to uphold specific codes and if so, how do we enforce code compliance? Can we apply technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to help solve some of these problems, increase the quality of services, while reducing costs? Lastly, what role should governments play in partnering with private companies to fund solutions?

These questions are just a starting point, but they illustrate the growing need for cross-sector collaboration to address how we advance safe, resilient mobility services which suitably protect public health. The COVID-19 pandemic has already shaken the foundations of the fledgling new mobility ecosystem, if we want to ensure our progress to date is not lost, a new approach to safety is essential.

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