Autonomous vehicles are a polarizing topic. Most Americans have a passing awareness and are quick to offer opinions on whether self-driving vehicles are good or bad. Polls consistently show most are cynical and unwilling to give up the wheel to a computer. Until June 19, 2016 I was just like everyone else. That’s the day my 19-year old son, Leo and his best friend Sam were killed in a car crash.
They were driving near our home in Mahwah, New Jersey when they veered off the road into a wooded area. The boys hadn’t been drinking or doing drugs and in a moment, two lives ended and our lives were changed forever. I know that if they’d been in a self-driving car, both young men would still be alive.
Leo and Sam had been best friends since elementary school and both were standout athletes. Leo was a freshman kicker on the University of Rhode Island’s football team and Sam was a wrestler at Rutgers. They were about to head back to school for their sophomore year when they died.
The pain of such an unexpected loss is unimaginable and I can assure you, it doesn’t go away. Multiply that experience by the 40,000 people who died in traffic crashes last year. Imagine the families, relatives and friends who were impacted, and you’ll understand why I’ve become such a passionate advocate for self-driving and connected vehicles.
We need to have this conversation continuously. Next month, I will be speaking at INTERSECT17, a gathering of transportation leaders in Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s the kind of critical talk we must embrace rather than run from. These conversations aren’t just about the latest technology — they are about saving lives.
While accidents involving autonomous vehicles may cause panic the fear is unwarranted. When a Florida man died using Tesla’s Autopilot, headlines asked whether the path to autonomy was worth it. The National Transportation Safety Board later issued a report indicating the driver was using Autopilot beyond its capability and ignored safety warnings.
Here’s the good news. Last month in a rare show of bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives recognized the importance of advancing self-driving vehicles by passing the “SELF DRIVE” Act, and the Senate has its own version of autonomous vehicle legislation that it will take up in the coming weeks. Both bills can help expand autonomous vehicle testing and provide clarity for federal oversight — where to date, there has only been a patchwork of state regulations. This is just the beginning, but Congress must act now to help make autonomous vehicles a reality.
There will be many obstacles in the path to full adoption. Before we get to completely autonomous vehicles, we must look at the regulatory and monetary needs of our state governments and infrastructure concerning connected vehicle capabilities that will get us to a self-driving future. America’s car culture is also slow to change and there is a multi-billion-dollar economy built around traffic crashes.
Self-driving and connected vehicles are in their infancy, and the aviation industry suffered many setbacks early on, but few would argue that those setbacks outweigh the safety and convenience of the aviation system we now enjoy.
Since Leo and Sam died, I’ve made it my mission to increase awareness about the life-saving potential of self-driving and connected vehicles. Awareness is everything because throughout history, we’ve seen that when consumers demand something, barriers fall away. We are committed to educating politicians, leaders and all Americans about the life-saving potential of existing and developing vehicle technology and getting it out of the research labs, out of Washington, D.C. and onto America’s roads. It’s literally technology we can live with.
Theodore “Teddy” Vagias is an advocate for intelligent transportation systems that will save lives, specifically autonomous and connected vehicles. His personal goal is to reduce vehicle related deaths to zero. He is also a Trustee for The Leonidas Foundation, named in his son’s honor, which is a non-profit organization focused on public service and providing humanitarian relief. He currently serves as the CEO of the Mason Harriman Group that recruits, retains and places CxO level executives from the private, public and nonprofit sector for advisory, turnarounds, interim and permanent CxO level engagements.