Vision Zero was originally conceptualized in Sweden in the mid-1990s and approved as official policy by the Swedish government in 1997.
Vision Zero was originally conceptualized in Sweden in the mid-1990s and approved as official policy by the Swedish government in 1997.
( Bild: Adobe Stock)

Vision Zero Vision Zero and autonomous vehicles

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Erika Granath

When developers of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) or AV platforms talk about safety, they often speak wistfully about a concept called "Vision Zero." For most car companies, Vision Zero is a utopian quest to bring the number of automobile accidents on public roads down to absolutely none. While such a notion might sound like an idealized fantasy, if regulations and technology are employed the right way, the AV industry may one day be able to come close to achieving this lofty goal. However, it might be decades before consumers can expect to live in such a perfect world. And this is for a very simple reason—cars that are still driven by humans will continue to be on the roads for a long time to come.

Vision Zero was originally conceptualized in Sweden in the mid-1990s and approved as official policy by the Swedish government in 1997.

Prior to this, the construction and renewal of roads and highway infrastructure were done on a cost-benefit basis; that is, a monetary value was placed on life and health, and it was up to the state what percentage of expenditure it wanted to realize and thus allow a certain threshold of deaths per annum. In effect, because of this allowance, it was drivers who determined how deadly roads were in the absence of other constraints.

Vision Zero does away with these ideas by placing an infinite value on life and health and disallowing government to make a cost justification for human lives. Instead, the goal regarding technology and infrastructure investment is for governments to impose whatever legal mandates are necessary to bring the number of fatal accidents down to zero.

Much of Vision Zero involves adjusting (typically reducing) speed limits to what pedestrians can withstand non-fatally in case of collisions wherever collisions are possible. As examples, areas where there are pedestrian crossings or intersections with turning traffic are zones where speeds may be able to be adjusted to bring down the risks of fatalities to virtually none.

With AVs, uniform compliance with area traffic regulations would ensure that local authorities could be assured of successful Vision Zero regulatory implementations.

Vision Zero was adopted in Sweden in October 1997. Since then, Norway, Canada, cities in the UK, parts of the United States, and at least one state in India have also formally recognized and included Vision Zero in public traffic regulatory policies. In addition, the Netherlands, the European Union, and the United Nations have outlined frameworks similar to Vision Zero without directly referencing it.

Even in nations that have not specifically adopted Vision Zero, there's increasing evidence that, at least in developed nations, traffic fatalities are substantially decreasing. In Switzerland, for instance, there were 1,209 traffic fatalities in 1980, while in 2013, there were 269. In Australia, there were 3,272 traffic fatalities in 1980, while in 2013, there were 1,185. In Sweden, there were 848 traffic fatalities in 1980, while in 2013, there were just 260.

A closer examination of how Vision Zero works

Vision Zero outlines maximum recommendable speeds for different settings.

According to a number of sources, the average pedestrian is able to survive in a collision with a vehicle traveling up to 30 kph (19 mph). In the UK, a movement to limit speed limits to 32 kph (20 mph) in residential areas—with a slogan of "20 is Plenty"—began in the early 2000s. Similar efforts in the United States took hold shortly thereafter.

The average vehicle occupant can survive head-on crashes with other cars where the oncoming vehicle is traveling up to 70 kph (43 mph) and side-impact crashes where the other car is traveling up to 50 kph (31 mph). Thus, speeds for roads where these types of crashes are possible are often set at these limits.

On roads where there's no possibility of frontal and side-impact crashes with other vehicles, a top speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph) is specified under Vision Zero for safety.

Motorways, freeways, and autobahns are sometimes referred to as Type 1 roads, whereas Type 2 roads specifically have two lanes of traffic going in one direction with a barrier separating two lanes going in the opposite direction (sometimes these are designated as "2+2 roads"). Type 3 roads have two lanes of traffic going in one direction with a barrier separating one lane going in the opposite direction (designated as "2+1 roads"). All of these roads feature limited access, junctions that are grade-separated, and crash barriers that isolate opposing traffic. In Vision Zero, slower and more vulnerable vehicles are prohibited from accessing these roads.

How AVs can help with Vision Zero

While a regulatory framework can go a long way toward helping states realize Vision Zero, the ultimate achievement of its core metric could be elusive simply due to the fact that not all human drivers will obey regulations in all driving scenarios.

But once AVs enter the picture, this calculus can change. Driving speeds are one of the easiest functionalities to control for AVs, and even the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 2 ("partial automation")-equipped cars usually have adaptive cruise control (ACC) built-in as part of their advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

Because critical parts of autonomous driving are object detection and collision avoidance and because an overriding priority of all AVs is safety, AVs are much more desirable than human-driven vehicles in terms of achieving an objective of no fatalities—possibly even one of no accidents at all.

While in theory, intelligent transportation systems (ITS) technologies could one day determine vehicle speeds instead of AVs' own electronic control unit (ECU) platforms, either way, a vehicle's speed, acceleration, and braking can be limited to local specifications.

How realistic is Vision Zero?

While a 100-percent realization of Vision Zero is a noble goal, achieving it via AVs is improbable before 2040 at the earliest. The reason why is simple: it's unlikely that all cars on the roads will be AVs until then.

As long as cars driven by people continue to run on public roads, the potential for accidents caused by human error will be a possibility. Even if all AVs drove absolutely flawlessly, cars operated by people could collide with or be unavoidably collided into by other vehicles due to erratic (and/or illegal) behavior on the part of human drivers. Add in factors such as alcohol, distractions, and drowsiness, and such scenarios are tragically inevitable.

However, it's possible that long before 2040, certain thoroughfares or sections of roads could be exclusively restricted to AVs. For instance, on highways, there might very well be AV-only lanes that could be physically divided from other lanes accessible by human drivers. Or, in parking lots and other geofenced areas, all driving might be done by vehicles' ADAS, virtually guaranteeing no mishaps.

Potentially, by that point, almost all cars on the road will come with some type of ADAS technology, but there could very well be a few "old-timers" that could be "grandfathered" into the law, enabling car buffs to continue to drive their antique vehicles in some locations.

It's unknown at this point if federal governments—for instance, in the United States—will regulate which vehicles can operate where, but it may ultimately come down to individual states that decide how much of these policies—and Vision Zero—they wish to mandate.