Will new licensing requirements be implemented in the USA as self-driving cars enter the market?

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Will the introduction of self-driving technologies lead to a complete overhaul of licensing requirements and education programs in the USA? ATTI columnist, John Heider asks

It comes as a surprise to many foreign visitors to the USA that drivers as young as 14 are free to operate motor vehicles of all age, condition, size and performance on our public roads. Generally speaking, in most states with this age limit the rules require a licensed adult to be in the vehicle with them until they are 16, but this really is of no consequence when an emergency situation is encountered. 

Brave are the driver’s education instructors and parents who willingly climb into a car with their 14- or 15-year-old chauffeur and moments later are traveling at 70mph (110km/h) down the interstate. Driving at night? In the rain? In the snow? No problem. ‘Mom, I’ve got this.’ Until they don’t. Statistics show that a 16-year-old driver is 1.5 times more likely to get in a crash than an 18-year-old. Why is this? 

It won’t be news to many that traditional US driver’s education programs and licensing test requirements are sorely lacking. The oversight for these programs is left to the individual states, with little to no federal government involvement or, even more importantly, significant national requirements to be met. The most difficult portion of the licensing road test in most states is parallel parking. I’m fairly certain that of the 30,000-40,000 people killed annually on US public roads, poor parallel parking skills were not a major contributing factor. Unbelievably, some states do not even require a road test to receive your license but rather allow parents to certify that their child is capable of independently operating a vehicle on public roads. However, the reality is that a 16-year-old may be a comprehensively better driver than their 40-year-old parent. We are all wired differently and excel at different types of tasks. 

Armed with data on the staggering number of worldwide motor vehicle related deaths and a strong push from various government agencies, corporations large and small are pouring billions of dollars into developing ADAS and self-driving technologies with the goal of allowing the vehicle to operate more safely independent of the actions of the driver. AV technologies will eventually save countless lives, but developing these solutions from the vehicle side of the equation is only a portion of the overall task and offers limited near-term benefits. In our lifetime there will also be millions of humans behind the wheel of old and new vehicles who need a little development. 

I always cringe at the disclaimers that come with the current generation of self-driving technologies stating the driver must be ready to take control of the vehicle at any time. In other words, look ahead, assess surrounding traffic and anticipate what may occur at any given moment so that I am ready to make any emergency or non-emergency maneuver required. Really? How many drivers possess these skills even when they are driving a standard vehicle? 

Multiple advanced driving instruction programs are offered in the USA addressing this lack of skills development for new drivers. Assuming the student has completed the basic training and licensing requirements of their state, these programs take the next step and teach skills that can be used in emergency situations – panic braking ensuring full actuation of the ABS system, aggressive lane change maneuvers to avoid an obstacle, split-second decision making and, in the best courses, skid control with the aid of a skid car. Learning the basic skills to operate a vehicle develops responsibility and maturity and gives most teenagers a sense of freedom; learning to drive a vehicle well only enhances this experience and makes all our roads safer.

These advanced programs are typically funded by a combination of private and public funding sources as well as program fees. As the project development and implementation timelines for ADAS and self-driving technologies progress, advanced instruction programs could be implemented as part of all driver’s education curricula at a minimal cost. When I crashed my new bicycle into a ditch after taking the training wheels off, my parents didn’t put the training wheels back on but rather told me to practice in a safer place. Improving the active and passive safety features of new vehicles will always be an industry target, but making drivers safer from the moment they set out in any new or old vehicle will yield immediate, life-saving results.

By John Heider

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