Opinion: Driver-education, not driverless cars are the way to make our roads safer
Autonomous vehicles are being heralded as the answer to America's appalling road-safety record, but instead of replacing humans, some might argue that improving human-drivers is the answer
April 14th, 1912, the largest and most technologically advanced ship in the world is plowing through the North Atlantic. Four days into its maiden voyage, this ship, under the command of an experienced crew, in near-perfect conditions, sideswipes an iceberg. This ship is the Titanic. And in less than three hours, it will be at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, along with it sinks the confidence in an entire industry.
Fast forward to 2021, cars, a constantly evolving staple of this country for well over a century, have seen easily the biggest upheave since Henry Ford decided to build his Model T on an assembly line. Tesla has taken the world by storm, and now that every major manufacturer plans to build an EV, the focus is shifting towards autonomous vehicles.
Tesla, much to its benefit, has been the bastion of this movement for nearly a decade, even going so far as to offer a misleading, "Full Self Driving" system on its cars. With consumers, especially American consumers, being quick to agree that replacing human drivers is the only way to make our roads safer.
And I can see where they're coming from; America's road safety statistics are pitiful so much so that you'd be safer driving down a Slovenian highway than an American interstate.
But really, this comes as no surprise. Americans approach driving with an astonishing but not uncharacteristic callous disregard. And as with many things, driving is treated as a right, meaning that most don't even give a second thought to the business of driver education.
Most schools don't even offer Drivers-ed, and when they do, it's approached with the same level of seriousness as a Middle School sex-ed class, even though statistics prove that teens who've taken driver-training courses are far less likely to have an accident on the road.
And don't think for a second that we haven't tried to get around our appalling road safety record before. We've lowered speed limits, increased DUI penalties, going so far as to make cars themselves less likely to crash. But even still, data shows that these efforts pale in comparison to what actual driver-training can do.
Take Germany, as an example. A country in which there are frequently no speed limits has just two-thirds Americas' road fatalities per capita. Why? Because in Germany, where driving is treated as a privilege and not an inborn right, you need to go through driving school, pass a theory test, a road test, an eye exam, and a first-aid course before receiving your license.
Enter: "Self Driving Cars."
America is the home of hyper-consumerism. We love to buy things. And companies, much to their benefit, know this.
"Self Driving Cars" are being sold to consumers under the guise of safety because what better way to solve road safety than by replacing ourselves with shiny new "Self Driving Cars."
Nobody is more guilty of perpetuating this narrative than Tesla. And for half a decade, they've been pedaling an utter falsehood. Their "Full Self Driving" system, which in case you were wondering, is very much not self-driving, as any system that requires a human to oversee it and be ready to take control at any time is not fully self-driving. Making it absolutely immoral and irresponsible for Tesla to call it anything beyond 'advanced driver-assist.'
Yet, Tesla's insistence upon calling their driver-assist system "Full Self Driving" has proven itself quite useful as a pr tool. And even still, nobody has done more to convince the public of an autonomous future than Tesla.
But, many might argue that autonomous vehicles are the only way to make our roads safer.
Logic would suggest that as 100% of accidents are caused by humans, we should banish humans from the road. But let me ask you this, isn't that the same as saying 100% of crimes are committed by humans, so we should get rid of all humans?
This kind of logic gets to the heart of the issue.
Our consumerism attitude of it's broken, go buy another one is particularly harmful. And as we try to make our roads safer, it would both be more cost-effective and productive for us to focus on improving human drivers.
And despite what Elon Musk may say, it will take decades for us to develop truly reliable SAE Level 5 (true full self-driving) capable autonomous vehicles. Decades in which hundreds of thousands more people will be killed because of lackluster driver education.
But back to Titanic, a ship born out of a time when technology and the confidence in that technology was booming and a time in which the much-needed regulation couldn't keep up. This ship sank not because of some freak design flaw; it sank because its designers could never have envisioned such a collision. Likewise, the technology, legislation, and safety training were not prepared for a seemingly-impossible situation.
Much like in 1912, we today have exciting new technologies, promising to make our cars virtually un-crashable, in the same ways that Titanic's innovations promised to make ships virtually unsinkable.
That reliance on under-tested technology, combined with the absence of basic safety regulations such as lifeboats and lifeboat drills, mixed in with the public's ignorance meant that over 1,500 people would die on an unsinkable ship.
And before we all go gaga over under-tested virtually un-crashable ‘self-driving’ cars, I hope that we can, at the very least, evaluate this issue at its source. Driving.