Who cares about people dying?

It may be a sad fact but saving lives just doesn’t sell. Saving a specific life, however, such as that of the prospective buyer of a new car can sell.

That buyer increasingly wants to know the shiny new set of wheels he or she will soon be driving off the forecourt will keep them and their loved-ones safe and free from harm no matter what the speeding congested roads can throw at them.

A recent J D Power survey backs this up revealing that Generation ‘Y’ customers are even more obsessed with car safety features than their forebears and are willing to pay as much as 50% more on the technology to help them ‘live forever’.

Yet, when it comes to saving lives on a macro level, it’s possible to argue there is little monetary incentive for any nation’s governing authority to do so. Naturally, car crashes cost a country a lot of money. Figures from the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that the 32,999 motoring related fatalities recorded in 2010 contributed hugely to an estimated $871Bn cost to the country.

This extrapolated across the US’s overall population saw that road accidents cost every person an average of $900. This is lot of money but enough of a financial imperative to start sinking huge amounts of public funds into stemming the tide of accidents?

Perhaps not, because for the same year, the US Federal Government spent a total of $19,203.70 per head on essential services including pensions, health care, education, defence, welfare, protection, transportation, general government, miscellaneous spending plus interest payments. Suddenly, the case for keeping people alive is starting to look like a very poor business proposition.

Naturally, no-one expects any of the world’s governments to start pulling the plug on road safety schemes but can we really see any of them investing the simply vast amounts of public funds, and their voters’ taxes, into creating the infrastructure required to put an end to road accidents? Enthusiasts of the autonomous vehicle will argue this halcyon vision is a genuine possibility with all vehicles being able to avoid collisions much better than those piloted by the human being.

Yet those autonomous cars are unlikely ever to reach this nirvana without the equally widespread adoption of Smart Cities able to fully interact with the vehicles and the vehicles with the cities’ infrastructure.

But who’s going to pay for this. Certainly not the public authorities who, as Honda (UK) managing director Philip Crossman told TU Automotive recently, can’t even find the funds to fill in pot-holes in our roads.

So, we will have to look at the stakeholders who will stand to make money out of Smart Cities. Commercial brains who may envisage a toll-road approach where even walking along a pavement will cost the pedestrian credits taken with every step through their smart-phones. Where the opening of the autonomous car’s door will see the silent electronic meter ticking pennies, pounds, dollars and yen, out of their bank accounts. Where out-of-hours street lights come on with the approach of the paying customer and charges them accordingly. Where town parks record the tread of shoe on carefully manicured turf and penalises the individual instantly for ignoring the ‘Don’t walk on the grass’ signs.

Before anyone starts thinking that a toll-run city is a little far-fetched, there are many public-private schemes throughout the world, including such capital investment heavy projects such as the Eurotunnel, that provide useful models towards commercialising a public infrastructure asset.

This may be frightening prospect for some and a mouth-watering commercial opportunity for others but it could make us contemplate how serious are we really about other people’s safety?

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_


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