A Better Way to Train Human Drivers and Test Autonomous Vehicles

By guest writer, Richard Goodwin, an NMA member

The light turns green, and I start to move out when I see a car heading for the red light on my left. I hesitate, briefly touching the brake, and am treated to a horn blast from behind, so I start to go but the car approaching the light flies right through the red light, barely missing my bumper. If I hadn’t hesitated, it would have broadsided me.

Shaken, I get going, only to have a car start to pull out in front of me from a side street on my right. Too late to stop, I swerve out around it, barely missing it. My breathing is just returning to normal when I decide to turn right at the next block. I put on my turn signal in plenty of time, but a car pulls out of a driveway directly in front of me before I get to my turn. This time my brakes save me, and I escape with nothing more than an angry look from the other driver, who points at my turn signal, which I had turned on the required 100 feet ahead of my turn, never thinking that he would assume I was turning into his street. Another lesson learned.

On the freeway I settle down in the middle of three lanes, next to a large tractor trailer rig going the same speed, when suddenly it starts to pull into my lane. I take a panicked look to my left, then duck into the empty space I find there. Someone had failed to yield coming off an entrance ramp, and the truck driver reacted by swerving into my lane. I guess I was the lesser of two evils?

Breathing hard, I pass the truck and put on my turn signal to change lanes back to the middle lane, which is empty. I get halfway into the middle lane when the car in the right lane also pulls into the middle lane, and after some mutual panic maneuvers, we barely miss each other.

The near disasters continue for a full hour before my time on the driving simulator is up, and my blood pressure starts a slow return to normal.

Driving safety is not just about following the rules and not making mistakes, but more importantly is about learning to recognize situations that have the potential to involve you in an accident if someone else does something wrong.

Over many years we learn these little lessons, but in normal uneventful driving we learn nothing. Worse, we become complacent, and our driving habits become second nature, even some bad ones because we so often get away with them, thanks to chance or other drivers’ avoidance skills. It is only on those rare heart-stopping occasions when something goes wrong that we learn something new and incorporate the knowledge into our everyday driving habits.

Airline pilots for many years have had the advantage of training in flight simulators because they need to be presented with all sorts of emergencies and learn the correct reactions for recovery and avoidance before they take to the air with a load of 200 passengers.

Why aren’t automobile drivers able and required to do the same sort of training? A course of intensive driving simulation, with every accident situation the instructors can dream up, would far better prepare a new driver than years of normal driving. But instead we barely train new drivers before throwing them out on the public roads with the rest of us, to learn, hopefully, on the job.

And now with autonomous vehicles trying to join us on the road, what better way to test their programming than to challenge them in a simulator instead of making the rest of us be their beta test bed!

It is long past time for someone to develop a realistic, effective driving simulator, and for our political leaders to legislate its mandatory use by new drivers as well as new autonomous vehicles.

NMA member Richard Goodwin has over a half century of successful driving behind him with no accidents his fault and few unavoidable minor ones caused by other drivers. He states that he was amazed that after the first five years behind the wheel he was still alive, given how little he knew about driving when handed a license at age 16. He enjoyed teaching his two children to drive—both have excellent driving records by the way. As a computer engineer, he is now creating his own driving simulator that he hopes will help all drivers be better at this life skill.

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