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We don’t just need an AV revolution — we need a design evolution

·5-min read

Over a century ago, the advent of the internal combustion engine took us out of the age of the horse-drawn carriage and into the age of the automobile. With the horse leaving the equation, vehicle designs started to emerge that were oriented around the comfort and safety of drivers.

Since then, society has come to accept a particular kind of car design: gas-powered, inattentive to pedestrians and other road users, and often driven by a distracted human. Today, mobility is undergoing another major transformation, and we are building what comes next: the fully autonomous electric vehicle.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) now present a rare opportunity for transformational change by reimagining how vehicles are designed, how they’re used and whom they serve.

To support this transformation, we’re announcing the launch of the Coalition for Safe Autonomous Vehicles and Electrification (SAVE). SAVE’s founding members — Zoox, Nuro and Local Motors — are united around three core principles: building safe automated driving systems, deploying AVs on fully electric platforms and incorporating new vehicle designs that improve mobility and access for all.

Traditional vehicle designs will not do enough

Today, we have congestion driven by single-occupant vehicle trips, pollution from gas-powered cars, inequitable access and rising traffic fatalities. SAVE will bring policymakers, industry leaders and advocates together to improve our communities with autonomy — and that includes rethinking the car.

After all, building an AV without any changes in vehicle design is like building a cell phone with a rotary dial.

SAVE’s members are designing vehicles for a mobility future that serves everyone. Zoox has developed an autonomous vehicle that is designed to be shared and contains over 100 safety innovations not featured in conventional cars.

Nuro is building zero-occupant delivery AVs designed for the safety of people outside the vehicle, which can improve access to groceries in food deserts.

Local Motors is building a shuttle that provides first- and last-mile connections to transit, with design innovations that can improve accessibility for people with disabilities.

AVs will lead to vehicle designs that are safer for everyone

The public health crisis on our roads led to an estimated 38,680 deaths last year. AVs can help reduce the 94% of fatal crashes in which a critical factor is driver error or choice — drunken driving, speeding and distraction — but if autonomy is paired with new vehicle designs, AVs will help achieve even greater improvements.

Today, our roads are more dangerous for pedestrians than they’ve been since 1989. Vehicles have historically been designed for the safety and comfort of drivers, rather than the people outside, which has led to ever-increasing vehicle sizes that are more deadly for pedestrians and cyclists. Pickups and SUVs now account for approximately 70% of new vehicle sales annually, and are two to three times more likely to kill a pedestrian in collisions.

AVs present an opportunity for a sea change in safety for people outside vehicles, just as seat belts and air bags significantly improved occupant safety. A recent Virginia Tech study found that zero-occupant delivery AVs can reduce fatal crashes and injuries by about 60%, based on design alone. Additionally, new safety innovations like the Zoox vehicle’s external lighting and sound system will enable AVs to communicate with pedestrians and other road users.

Zero-emissions AVs will reduce emissions, improve efficiency

The future of transportation must be zero emissions, which is why we’re building AVs from the ground up to be fully electric.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector is the No. 1 contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and the pollution it causes increases the prevalence of life-threatening childhood asthma, disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Yet a congested street filled with single-occupant, gas-powered vehicles looks exactly the same as one with electric vehicles, which is why we also need to fundamentally shift how vehicles are used.

The widespread deployment of electric AVs in shared fleets, combined with transit and active transportation, can lead to an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Additionally, by going electric and “batching” deliveries to multiple people, delivery AVs could help avoid 407 million tons of CO2 emissions from 2025 to 2035 — effectively offsetting the emissions from powering every home in the four largest cities in the U.S. for a decade.

AVs should provide accessible, equitable mobility options

Having access to a vehicle makes a person four times more likely to have a job, and access to affordable shared AV services can significantly reduce household expenses and connect low-income Americans with new job opportunities.

Additionally, delivery AVs can help to improve access to fresh groceries for 14 million, or 70%, of the 20 million low-income Americans living in food deserts.

Vehicles have traditionally been designed around the able-bodied, limiting the mobility options available to people living with disabilities and older adults. The introduction of AVs gives us another chance to design vehicles that are accessible for the 25.5 million Americans with travel-limiting disabilities, which could lead to an estimated 2 million new employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Modernizing regulations will unlock AVs’ full benefits

This year, Congress is considering a generational reinvestment in our nation’s infrastructure that will fund sorely needed repairs and accelerate consumer adoption of electric vehicles. But using new roads in the same way will not be enough.

Congress must seize the opportunity to modernize federal policies and reimagine how our roads are used. Updating federal vehicle standards, while maintaining their safety intent, would foster the deployment of AVs that deliver on safer roads, expanded access, and a more sustainable and efficient transportation sector.

Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves once again kicking the can down freshly paved roads.

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