An article appeared today on CNET called The Robotic Road Ahead which talked about recent accomplishments in the field of robotics to create cars which can drive themselves. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ponied up two million bucks to the winner of a race over Nevada desert terrain in a vehicle with no human driving it, and five of them actually finished this year – for the first time since the race was created. Even though the article is about cars without drivers, I’d like to speak to the opinions in it about the current state of cars with drivers, and the reasons to be looking to driverless vehicles. Here’s what got my gears grinding:
According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Hispanics between the ages of 1 and 34, and the third leading cause of death for all ages–only heart disease and cancer kill more people. In 2002, 42,815 people were killed and more than 2.9 million people injured in about 6.3 million traffic crashes. The World Health Organization reports that more than 1.2 million people were killed in traffic accidents worldwide and suggests that by 2020, traffic injuries could be the third largest cause of death and disability in the world–affecting more people than malaria, tuberculosis, and even HIV/AIDS. More than 40 people die every day in drunk driving accidents, and drunk driving between 1998 and 2002 actually increased in 17 states. In fact, according to the NHTSA, nearly 97 percent of Americans see drunk drivers as a threat to them and their families. But you know what? I’m betting the statistics will bear out my assertion that more than 3 percent of Americans have driven, will drive, or constantly drive under the influence. And what would any American, or anyone anywhere, say if you came to them and said, “Eureka! I have the answer. We just don’t drive anymore. The cars do it for us.” I can hear you now. “Well, it’s not me who’s the bad driver. It’s everyone else.” Of course it is. But you can’t really stop the bad drivers without stopping all drivers. If we ever got serious about autonomous vehicles as the safety solution, well, we’d be looking at a pretty nuclear solution. Because it has to be all or nothing. You can’t let some people drive because they insist they’re the safe ones, right?
Yes, you can. The reason people keep killing themselves in cars is simple. It’s because they’re never properly taught how to drive them. Like low gas prices compared to our European peers, Americans take for granted the ease with which we can obtain a driver’s license. It is far too easy – anyone with two semioperational eyes and a pulse can get one. The testing standards need to be increased substantially and real driver training courses such as those at Skip Barber, Bob Bondurant, Bragg-Smith and Car Guys need to be the norm for teaching vehicle dynamics in all weather conditions.
To obtain a pilot’s license, you are required to learn how to fly an airplane beyond its limits intentionally in order to know how to deal with it when bad things happen unintentionally. We call it stalling and spinning. Yet who has ever been required to drive a car beyond its limits to get a driver’s license? When I took my driving test, I didn’t go faster than 35mph. All I had to demonstrate was a knowledge of the rules of the road, and that is not enough. You’re given the equivalent of a 1st-grade education and turned loose. How many people have been taught how to recover a car that is out of control in Driver’s Ed class? People instinctively do the wrong things in those situations and their mistakes are often deadly, both to themselves as well as to their passengers and anyone else who happens to get in the way. Did you know that the worst thing you can do when a car starts to spin (in the rain or snow for example) is to slam on the brakes? Yet I guarantee it’s your first reaction if you haven’t learned otherwise. It’s the first reaction to most bad situations, and it is not always the best one.
Another part of the problem is the mesage we are sending to our youth. Kids live under the mistaken assumption that they learn everything they need to know in school. We take 15-year-olds and teach them how to drive a car around town, and they think once they’ve mastered the gas, brake, steering wheel, turn signal and most importantly, the radio, that they know all they need to. We tell them this by giving them a certificate of completion and a license to drive. What kind of arrogance and overconfidence do you think that engenders? The hallmark of a truly wise person is not only how much one knows, but a constant awareness that there’s a lot more that one doesn’t know. Is it any surprise that more teenagers die in automobile accidents than any other way?
For the amount of money that is dumped into wasted ad campaigns about which nobody gives a damn except these clueless politicians who think the answer to everything is to legislate away more of everyone’s freedoms, it could be put into building nationwide driver training facilities with tire walls, skidpads and helmets, and instead of teaching people how to drive when things go right, teach them what to do when things go wrong.
Addendum: GM has announced a self-driving system will be available as an option on the 2008 Opel Vectra in Europe. Of course, liability laws and greedy lawyers being what they are here in the US, we’ll probably never see this technology in any vehicle on US shores.