Autonomous Vehicles Still Have a Lot to Learn

Autonomous Vehicles Still Have a Lot to Learn

According to the US CDC, motor vehicles are the leading cause of death for US teens. When you break it down per mile driven, teen drivers 16-19 are three times more likely than older drivers to die in a crash. It is worse for males (two time more likely to die than females) and worse for the brand new drivers (16-17 year olds crash at twice the rate of 18-19 year olds). Especially in the first few months of driving teens crash a lot.

As the parent of a 16-year old on the cusp of getting his license I see it every time we drive together. It is simply a lack of experience. Doesn’t brake soon enough. Doesn’t know when to change lanes. Doesn’t anticipate other drivers doing stupid things. Anything outside the norm causes over-reaction.

Young drivers are over-confident and don’t yet have the feel for the road. And in their inexperience they cause crashes.

The events in Arizona, the tragedy of an autonomous test vehicle striking and killing a pedestrian on a public roadway, reminds us how much our autonomous vehicles are like freshly minted drivers with a lot to learn. The overconfidence of a young 18-year old boy is nothing compared to the hubris of a company that suggests autonomous vehicles are ready to drive on public roads without a skilled human driver actively supervising.

But let us remember, with human drivers every year there is a new crop of teenagers on the road for the first time. Their learning curve is a risk of passage to each of them. But as they mature and their skills improve the next crop replaces them – so the risk teenage drivers pose to the rest of us is a permanent, perpetual risk.

The good news of autonomous vehicles is that every vehicle with that same technology stack can benefit from each learning experience any one of them goes through – the fleet learns, not the individual car. So if we can get through the learning curve once, it may be once and for all.

Long term it is easy to envision dramatically reduced automotive deaths due to autonomous vehicles. But before this dream is a reality autonomous vehicles have a lot to learn.

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