Self-driving features such as Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot are showing up on more and more new vehicles. That means that many new drivers are increasingly learning how to drive in cars that have these advanced driver assistance features (ADAS). Should they use them immediately, or should they wait until they know how to carry out those functions themselves?
I think that they should be learning to use the new features immediately and use them as often as possible. These features have been designed to make driving safer and easier for drivers – two of the top things a new driver needs when getting behind the wheel.
Self-driving features will be increasingly common on new cars of all price points over the next ten years. Automatic emergency braking, a key ADAS safety feature, has been mandated to be included on all cars sold in the USA by September 2021, per voluntary agreement with the NHTSA. 20 automotive manufacturers report that 30% to 50% of all of their cars already have this feature.
Automatic emergency braking (AEB) does exactly what it says: it puts the brakes on for the driver when conditions indicate that they are going to hit something in front of them, and it does so in a way that is most likely to prevent the collision. This is after alerting the driver and instructing them to apply the brakes if they aren’t doing so.
Automatic emergency braking is in the same evolutionary vein as antilock braking systems (ABS), which automatically ‘pump’ the brakes to maintain traction. ABS is another safety feature on modern vehicles that is so ubiquitous that it is unusual to find cars and even motorcycles sold without it.
NHTSA data shows that ABS has resulted in a, “13-percent reduction in fatal collisions with pedestrians (confidence bounds: 5% to 20%) and a significant 12-percent reduction in collisions with other vehicles on wet roads (confidence bounds: 3% to 20%). ABS is quite effective in nonfatal crashes, reducing the overall crash involvement rate by 6 percent in passenger cars (confidence bounds: 4% to 8%) and by 8 percent in LTVs (confidence bounds: 3% to 11%).”
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) has also demonstrated significant improvements in safety. ESC reduces the need for the driver to have mechanical competence and decreases the chances of skidding substantially. Because of this, it is a regulated requirement in many jurisdictions for all cars.
While there are too few fatalities to assess fatalities per mile statistically, there are more than enough miles driven by human drivers without autopilot vs. human drivers with Autopilot in Teslas for some trends to be developed. This data has been shared with and concurred to by the NHTSA which showed 40% fewer airbag deployments due to collisions when Autopilot is engaged than when drivers are solely in control.
This is a large part of the reason why the NHTSA is ignoring the popular press highlighting the rare incidences of Autopilot engaged during collisions. It’s statistically safer and that’s what the NHTSA and every other sane organization bases conclusions and interventions off of.
What does this mean? It means that equivalent technologies will be requested and increasingly demanded by national regulators of traffic. ADAS technologies will be increasingly included on a wider range of vehicles and competent in a wider range of circumstances every year.
What are the implications of these technologies for new drivers? To put it in perspective, we simply need to ask a few questions about current technologies:
- Should a new driver be taught to drive with ABS turned off and only engage it after driving the first 10,000 kilometers (or other arbitrary distance)?
- Should a new driver be taught to drive with ESC turned off and only engage it after driving the first 10,000 kilometers?
- Should a new driver be taught to drive with AEB turned off and only engage it after driving the first 10,000 kilometers?
The answer is clearly no because history, data and statistics tell us that these technologies make driving safer.
Let’s ask another pair of questions:
- Should new drivers be required to learn to drive solely in manual transmission vehicles without any driver assistance features?
- Should new drivers first learn in cars without airbags, crumple zones or seatbelts?
Most people will answer “Yes” to these questions. All of those features make drivers safer, just like Tesla’s Autopilot makes driving safer for today’s drivers. With new drivers being involved in a disproportionate percentage of collisions, they need all the help they can get, including Autopilot.
“Young Canadians are over-represented in crash statistics; they represent only 13% of the licensed driving population, but account for approximately 20% of the motor vehicle related deaths and injuries.”
Anything we can do to help new drivers to be safer on the road is good. ABS, ESC and AEB are all things kids can expect, along with automatic transmissions, airbags and shoulder belts. Autopilot is in that continuum and any argument against it is the same as the argument against the others.
But let’s return to the time argument. As stated, in a decade or so, a large percentage of new cars will have similar competencies as Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot has today. Beyond that, an increasingly large number of cars will have full Level 4 and Level 5 autonomy by then.
Any driving skill a kid learns today that is not aligned with what the vehicles that they will own and operate do in the future is intentional obsolescence. If I had a child, I wouldn’t be teaching them to pump the brakes or do threshold braking, as one example. I’d tell them not to get in or buy cars without ABS, which is a trivial bar to clear. And I’d tell them that if circumstances required them to operate a vehicle like that, to learn those skills as needed.
People learning to drive today are going to need to know how to safely engage Autopilot equivalents because they will be increasingly dominant and automatically enabled in the future. That makes for safer drivers and less accidents for everyone. Avoiding the feature isn’t doing kids any favors. Learning how to use Autopilot is a useful competency, much more useful than learn threshold braking or how to drive a manual transmission.
Let’s talk about demographic trends for a minute. People are moving to urban areas around the world.
What is the most common attribute of driving in urban areas? Paved roads and other drivers. 99% of all kids learning to drive are going to spend 99% of their time on reasonably cleared roads in traffic. The biggest threats to them are other drivers. The more time that they have to spend looking at other drivers that is not devoted to directly managing the performance of their car the better.
Driving in urban areas is safer and different than driving in rural areas:
“Approximately 91 percent of nighttime rural fatal crashes occur on dark roadways and 9 percent occur on roads lighted by streetlights. In urban areas, 40 percent of fatal nighttime crashes occur on dark roadways and 60 percent occur on lighted roadways.”
What else is important to know about urban areas? An increasingly large number of people don’t drive at all in them. They use a multi-modal transport model with combinations of transit, walking, bike share and Uber (or local equivalents). That describes me and I’m not a millennial. They are abandoning cars in numbers that distress the legacy automobile companies. Boomers who are moving to downtown condos often forego their cars along with their lawns and white picket fences. In cities, car ownership is more an expensive annoyance than the utility it is in suburbs and rural areas.
“Speed kills” is an important issue that is poorly understood by many. In short, the single largest indicator of whether the participants walk away from collisions is the speed of the collision. New drivers have poor speed judgment and control which can be augmented by Autopilot or similar variants that have an excellent ability to assess speed and react appropriately based on simple physics.
So let’s sum this up.
- Enhanced Autopilot is on the continuum of advanced driver assistance safety features, most of which are completely uncontroversial.
- Enhanced Autopilot or its equivalent is safer than most human drivers already.
- Enhanced Autopilot makes driving safer for new drivers specifically.
- Enhanced Autopilot and its equivalents are going to be increasingly prevalent in vehicles in the future.
- People learning to drive today will increasingly be letting others – or machines – transport them in the future.
- A large number of driving skills have been obsoleted by technology like pumping brakes, threshold braking, low traction starts and changing gears manually.
It is difficult to make an argument for the vast majority of people learning to drive to not use Enhanced Autopilot or its equivalent on other cars as much as possible. Its use keeps everyone on the road safer.
We wouldn’t let our kids drink and drive, drive without seatbelts or drive without ABS. Why would we let them drive without Autopilot?
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