Fast tracking life-saving innovations

Last week, a member of my family died in a car accident. Jasper was on his way home and was hit by a taxi. He fought for his life, but died the next day. Jasper was only 16 years old. I was at Davos and at one point I had to step out of the conference to cry. Five years ago, another family member died after she was hit by a truck when crossing the road.

It's hard to see a tragedy like this juxtaposed against a conference filled with people talking about improving the state of the world. These personal losses make me want to fast-forward to a time in the future where self-driving cars are normal, and life-saving innovations don't have as much regulatory red tape to cut through before they can have an impact. It's frustrating that we may have the right technology in sight today, but aren't making it available, especially when people's lives are at stake.

Imagine two busses full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day. That is how many people die on America's roads every day. In fact, more people are killed by cars than guns, but I don't see anyone calling for a ban on automobiles. Car accidents (and traffic jams) are almost always the result of human error. It is estimated that self-driving cars could reduce deaths on the road by 90%. That is almost 30,000 lives saved each year in the US alone. The life-saving estimates for driverless cars are on par with the efficacy of modern vaccines. I hope my children, now ages 6 and 8, will never need a driver's license and can grow up in a world with driverless cars.

The self-driving car isn't as far off as you might think but is still being held back by government regulators. Delayed technology isn't limited to self-driving cars. Life-saving innovations in healthcare are often held back by regulatory requirements. The challenge of climate change could be addressed faster if the regulatory uncertainty around solar and wind power permits and policies were reduced. The self-serving interest of lobbying groups focused on maintaining the status quo for industries like Big Oil make it harder for alternative energies to gain momentum.

Regulators need to frame their jobs differently; they need to ask how they can facilitate and enable emerging disruptive innovations, rather than maintain existing systems. Their job should focus more on removing any barriers that prevent disruptions from having a faster impact. If they do this job well, some established institutions will fail. In some cases, economic sacrifices by the incumbents should be of lesser concern than advancing social health and safety for the benefit of society. I'm less concerned about technology destroying jobs, and more concerned about our children not being able to benefit from available technical advances that improve their lives. We should realize that opportunities for long-term economic growth come with short-term disruption or temporary pain.

Losing family members in fatal accidents makes one think about what could have been done. I'm often asked how one can create a "Silicon Valley" model elsewhere in the world. I may have an answer. If you want to out-"Silicon Valley" Silicon Valley, create a region with a regulatory environment that supports prompt, responsible innovation to drive the adoption and iteration of new technologies. A region where people can responsibly launch self-driving cars, fast-track healthcare and address climate change. A region where long-term advantages are valued more than short-term disadvantages. Such a region would attract capital and entrepreneurs, and would be much better for our children.


Mike Gifford (not verified):

Thanks for sharing this Dries. I'm sorry for your loss. Traffic accidents have probably affected most of us at one point or other in our lives.

As you know, there are some countries and cities that have taken measures which have reduced the impact. It is inspiring to see cities like Amsterdam who have taken a pro-pedestrian approach to urban life.

As far as driverless cars, I'm all for it, as long as they embrace open source, open standards and allow for an open dialog about their impact on society. Right I do see many reasons to be concerned with the direction that we are headed, given carhacking and for that matter all of the security concerns with the IoT in general.

As you know, in the rush to sell the next big feature, often security (which in this case really boils down to safety) is compromised.

I do think that this offers a really big (and hopefully great) shift in how our society is organized. Self-driving cars means that we really can have a lot less cars.

I'm all for disruptive technologies, but we also need to be able to have a forum to discuss the impact of those technologies to help us as a society make decisions as to whether it will be a net-positive or not.

January 26, 2016
stijn (not verified):

Very sorry to hear about your loss. My condoleances. It's a sad state of affairs, to read about how government red-tape is preventing solutions from being effectuated. If ever you want to create an impactful "Silicon Valley", I'd start by looking at the government sector. And that requires a change of mindset, because government isn't formed on merit, but on popular vote. And if popular vote was a deciding factor, we'd all still be using Hotmail.

January 26, 2016
zhilevan (not verified):

I am so sorry to hear for your loss. :(

January 28, 2016
Paulius Pazdrazdys (not verified):

Yep, it's really frustrating how government is not pushing things faster. What's promising however, that US government is doing some steps in this way -…. When do you think autonomous cars would be reality? Elon Musk is hoping for 2-3 years for technology to get into state when it's ready. The question now is if regulators will be ready for this kind of pace. Let's hope they care about our lives and safety on the road.

January 29, 2016
Brent Shambaugh (not verified):


I'm sorry to hear about your loss. I do hope that technology or at least something will reduce the loss of life due to accidents. Thanks for being a blessing with your positive outlook through all this.

January 31, 2016
Manish (not verified):

I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. There is a multi-national effort to eliminate traffic fatalities known as Vision Zero, which you may want to Google to learn more about.

With regards to regulation, I think there's a balancing act. The following is a recent article about a time that regulation saved lives.…

February 01, 2016
Kenny Silanskas (not verified):

My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family, my friend. May Jasper live among the stars. This is such an important topic you're raising as the statistics are terrifying. It's not disease, IMO, that will end up compromising our human race. It's our own folly. The more technology we can introduce to avert our folly, the better.

All of the great pains of this world are caused by our race: Global Warming, Automobile Fatalities, Wars, etc. etc. It's high time we - as the race responsible for those pains - leverage our greatest asset to reduce them: Our knowledge.

One story comes to mind recently for me. A small lab in the south has developed a cure for breast cancer. This was about 3 years ago that it was reported. But the red tape of research has caused the American Cancer Society to decide not to fund the effort so they can do their own independent study. i.e. So they can benefit from the revenue.

We have a chance as technologists to change the world. I hope we all can rally together to do so and prevent tragedies like these from taking more of the ones we love before their time.

February 04, 2016

Another good data point in… (via Matt Mullenweg):

"If U.S. roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered. Seriously: Annual U.S. highway fatalities outnumber the yearly war dead during each Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution. When all of the injuries from car wrecks are also taken into account, one year of American driving is more dangerous than all those wars put together."

April 13, 2016
Byron Norris (not verified):

Along with technology advancements, we need to work on shifting perception of what a car means to an individual. I believe these beliefs are blockers to autonomous cars to gaining mainstream acceptance are:

1. A personal vehicle is freedom. One can head for the hills at the first sign of disaster. Anyone who's sat in traffic because of a distant fender bender knows this is a total fantasy.
2. A personal vehicle affords insularity from the general public. If one is comfortable in their own car, they don't have to think about the mentally ill person on the bus having an episode. If one doesn't have to confront the ills of their environment on a daily basis, they have less of an incentive to be part of the solution.
3. A personal vehicle is an expression of one's self. Autonomous cars start us on the path towards the discussion of "why do I even need to own a car?"

This means rewriting the narrative delivered to us by car manufacturers for decades. It also involves shifting (balancing) the importance of "we" over "me". These are scary discussions for some people.

July 15, 2016

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