Automotive > Powertrain, Body, Chassis & Safety Blog

Zero Credibility

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 10, 2022

The headline on the embargoed press release from Neural Propulsion Systems this week was promising: “Zero Roadway Deaths Means Seeing Everything Sooner, Clearer, and Farther with Breakthrough Technology.” The promise was the realization of the aspirations of auto makers, regulators, politicians, and people everywhere: zero fatalities – i.e. Vision Zero. 

Sad to say, the breathless claims merely served to highlight the reality, in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, of increasing highway fatalities. As former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said during his 1980 campaign vs. Willy Brandt:  "Wer Visionen hat, sollte zum Arzt gehen" (Anyone who has visions should go to the doctor.)

Vision Zero, whether zero fatalities, zero emissions, or zero congestion or all of the above, has obscured and deferred the achievement of the possible in favor of the unattainable. The vision of zero fatalities has sent the auto industry chasing after autonomous driving. The vision of zero emissions has spurred the universal embrace of EVs (and a corresponding rejection of internal combustion and diesel vehicles). And the vision of zero congestion has given rise to proposed car bans in European capitols.

These absolutist slogans have produced little in the way of achieving the claimed objectives. Rather than reducing fatalities, emissions, or traffic, we are all painfully aware – as we emerge from our pandemic hibernation – that traffic congestion is back, emissions-spurred global warming is accelerating, and highway fatalities are climbing.

It’s time for more rational short and long term goals to be adopted. We all know that zero emissions, fatalities, and congestion are science fiction-level aspirations. We need objectives that are achievable and regulatory or technological roadmaps that can guide us over well-defined interim hurdles.

With our Zero mentality, perfection has become the enemy of progress. An entrepreneur bent on saving hundreds of lives or even thousands with a new innovation is shunned in favor of the founder promising, in the words of the aforementioned press materials, to “eradicate” fatalities.

You need a zero-centric pitch deck. Remember when Uber and Lyft told investors and the public they would end individual vehicle ownership? That is what qualifies as salesmanship and marketing today.

Innovators with solid technical solutions demonstrably capable of saving hundreds lives are told they are aiming too low. The ROI is insufficient to attract investments. The venture capitalists intone: “We like what you’re doing. Keep it up.”

The reality is that the “big” thinkers claiming to have the “key” to end all fatalities, traffic, and emissions get the big bucks and the public is left with nothing. The same is true for politicians. The Mayor of (pick your city) proclaims a broad Zero campaign to end pedestrian fatalities and walks away with all the votes. The mayor’s rival proposes practical measures with specific goals and is defeated.

Perhaps a model more like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency targets would be more effective. Setting annual goals for highway fatality reductions would bring renewed focus to the data collection and analysis and the realistic means for making even small improvements – a hundred lives saved here, a hundred saved there – pretty soon the numbers are moving in the right direction.

As for emissions and congestion, here, too, we need better metrics and methodologies for measuring and understanding progress. Individuals feel powerless in the face of pervasive “zero” rhetoric. Improved data transparency can be empowering.

Floating as we are today in our Zero bubble, we are living in a world of visions. Schmidt is correct. If we are having visions, we should see a doctor. The prescription will inevitably be practical short-term measures with long-term objectives that are attainable and measurable.

Without such an approach we are left with a slavish commitment to meaningless marketing messages. In this context, Zero becomes the catechism-ic conventional wisdom the challenging of which can mean banishment. Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares recently questioned the assumptions behind the pace of the current EV transition in the automotive industry wherein some countries have proposed outlawing internal combustion engines by 2035.

Tavares dared to suggest – in an emperor-has-no-clothes moment – that the transition was happening too fast, that EVs are too expensive, that regulators and politicians had gone too far. He did not suggest that Stellantis was unwilling or unable to comply, but he was questioning the wisdom of current policies and perhaps unchallenged positions – and clearly giving voice to the stress likely to be felt across the industry by management and rank and file employees alike.

We need to reduce highway fatalities. We must reduce emissions. We ought to find a way to mitigate congestion. Unfortunately the zero-centric approach is infeasible, disingenuous, misleading, and unreasonable. People and organizations need goals that are achievable and results that are measurable.

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