MIT researcher says automation alone will not solve transportation safety problems

Last modified: Thursday, June 11, 2015

HADLEY — Technology for self-driving cars is progressing rapidly, but the difficulty will be in connecting people to those systems.

That’s what Bryan Reimer, associate director for research at the New England University Transportation Center at MIT, told attendees at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission annual meeting Thursday.

“We need to stop assuming that automation alone will solve our transportation safety problems,” he said in his keynote speech.

Referring to an announcement by Google that automated cars could be on the roads in significant numbers by 2016, Reimer said that people will first have to trust the technology, and that trust quickly can be eroded by malfunctions or incomplete understanding of how it works.

Instead of leaping into self-driving cars, Reimer advocated looking for stepping-stones, with companies and governments making parallel investments both in technology and in establishing systems for people to get comfortable interacting with that technology.

Using distracted-driving laws adopted in different states as an example, Reimer said that in some cases talking on a cell phone is actually the safer decision. On a highway at night with a tired driver, talking on a cell phone can help keep the driver alert and prevent the driver from dozing off, he said.

However, that is a very different situation than being in Boston city traffic, he said.

The challenges around self-driving cars will be numerous. Reimer believes there will have to be a new drivers’ education system to learn how to drive them, and that road infrastructure repairs are necessary.

Automobile fatalities, now at a yearly rate of 30,000, do have the potential to be reduced through self-driving cars, but there will still be accidents, he said.

“Automated vehicles will harm people,” he said. “It is only a matter of time.”

The mobility of older adults may improve through automated cars, he said.

Brooks Fitch, a member of the coordinating council for the Pioneer Valley Plan for Progress, said he found Reimer’s talk very timely.

“Human interface is extremely relevant and people aren’t looking at that,” Fitch said.

Fitch, along with Al Stegemann, the highway director emeritus for MassDOT District 2, and Natalie Blais, district communications director emeritus for Congressman James McGovern, D-Worcester, received regional recognition awards from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at


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