So far, self-driving cars have a safer driving track record than most humans. This seems impressive, but part of the reason they're safer is because we suck at driving. We're in a hurry, we get angry, and we take unnecessary risks. In those areas, self-driving cars have a few things they could teach us about being better drivers.
Photo by Elliott P..
While self-driving cars haven't yet been deployed on a large scale, they already appear to be statistically safer than human drivers. For reference, in Australia there were 1,209 fatalities in 2015. Meanwhile, according to a study from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute — which was commissioned by Google — self-driving cars had 3.2 accidents per million miles, compared to 4.2 accidents per million miles for humans. The study also believed, but couldn't prove that the self-driving car accidents weren't as severe.
Of course, it's still too early to say that driverless cars would definitely be safer in mass use. The closest we have right now are Tesla vehicles that aren't fully autonomous, and the US federal government has just put forward its first set of regulations regarding driverless cars. However, self-driving cars still have some obvious advantages. They don't drive drunk, they don't get road rage, and they adhere more closely to the rules of the road than we feel comfortable doing. Even if they're not ready to hit the road, they can teach us a few things about being safe.
Pay Attention to Where Other People Are Going, Not Just Where They Are
In the video above, Chris Urmson, Google's head of its driverless car program, explains how its cars see the world. Around 10:37, he explains how cars watch other drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists to predict not only where they are, but where they intend to be. Urmson shows how the car identifies a cyclist and anticipates that it will need to veer left to get around a car that's ahead of it. By paying attention to where the cyclist intends to go, the car knows to either slow down or give it room.
You might not be able to keep mental track of as many different objects and their trajectories as a driverless car, but you can still anticipate where a car's going to be. For example, if you see a car barreling forward towards a red light, you probably already guess that they're not planning to stop. You may have a green light, but you know not to enter the intersection anyway until the speeding car has passed. Knowing the difference between what's supposed to happen and what is happening can save your life. There are a lot of other little ways you can anticipate the actions of other drivers, including but not limited to:
- Watch the other driver, not just their car. Your eyes may be drawn to the other cars on the road, but if you're at an intersection or changing lanes, you may be able to see inside a window to the driver themselves. This can give you clues about what they're planning to do. If you spot a driver looking at the lane you're trying to merge into, wait to see what they do before making your move. This can also help you spot distracted drivers. If you see a driver on their phone, get some distance before you make a turn or change lanes.
- Watch for turn signals, but don't trust them. One of the best pieces of driving advice I ever heard was "Don't commit to your turn until the other person commits to theirs." If you're turning right onto a road and an oncoming car has a turn signal on, you might assume they're going to turn onto the road you're leaving. However, they might have just forgotten to turn their signal off. Remember the driver behind the wheel of the other car is a fallible human before you pull out in front of a speeding vehicle.
- Keep a safe distance, just in case. This is a basic rule of the road that still needs to be repeated because many drivers simply don't get it. If you're stuck in slow traffic, getting right up on the bumper of the car in front of you won't get you where you're going faster. Leave enough space between your car and the one in front of you to brake suddenly if you need to. Even if other drivers fill that space, you can always back off a little more. Don't get upset when leaving space allows others to merge. That's the point. It's better to be safe and let someone in than to try to block them and accidentally rear-end someone.
Until self-driving cars become common, all the other drivers you encounter will be humans just like you. They want to get where they're going as fast as possible, they want others to follow the rules, and they will make mistakes. Having realistic expectations and anticipating failures can help you prevent accidents and stay safer.
Learn the Roads Around You, Including the Ones You Don't Use
Google's self-driving cars don't just use sensors to see the world around them. They also make use of Google's extensive map data to be aware of all the roads around them. When they approach an intersection, they know all the different directions a car could be coming from and even how much traffic is on those roads throughout the day.
You'll never have the kind of road omniscience that Google has, but you can be more aware of your surroundings by using the GPS on your phone. Even if you know your route by heart, pull up directions on your phone (before you start driving) and mount it somewhere you can see it as you drive. Both Google Maps and Waze let you know when traffic is about to get worse. If you can see that traffic on the freeway suddenly gets red in a half mile, you're better prepared to slow down when you need to. Note: this doesn't give you a licence to drive distracted. Mount your phone somewhere you can glance at it like you would your speedometer, but don't fiddle with it while you're driving.
You might also find better routes on your way home. Particularly during high-traffic hours, GPS apps will suggest alternate routes that can save you some time on your commute. More importantly, it can help keep you alert. When you get used to your route, you're more likely to tune out and get distracted. That distraction can lead to accidents. Learning a different route keeps you engaged and helps you pay attention. Even if you don't need to cut down on your commute, it might be worth hitting the alternate route button.
Watch for Obstacles Beyond Just the Car In Front of You
While you might spend most of your time focused on the car in front of you while driving, self-driving cars have a broader picture of the world. Unlike humans, they have can see in all directions at once. In fact, they can see in more ways than humans can. As Urmson demonstrates in the segment above, Google's self-driving car was able to see a cyclist using laser sensors long before it was visible to the human eye. You know, that inferior human eye that you have to use to drive.
While you may not have the same visual abilities as a self-driving car, you do have one superpower in your favour: object permanence. Being aware of where the cars are around you is kind of important if you want to avoid hitting them. According to the site Defensive Driving, you should check your mirrors every five seconds while driving. This includes your side and rearview mirrors. Since the driving conditions around you can change rapidly, checking frequently makes sure you know where cars and other objects are around you at all times.
It's also a good idea to look around when you're at an intersection to see where other travellers are (and where they're headed). In the same cyclist example above, three human-driven cars began to pull out into the intersection when their light turned green. Glancing to the left before pulling forward — or even easing out into the intersection slowly instead of slamming the gas pedal to the floor — would have shown the drivers that a cyclist was crossing their paths. Instead of using a red light as an excuse to check your phone because it's "safe" to do so, take a look out your window and you might spot a potential accident before it happens.
Prioritise Playing It Safe Over Taking Unnecessary Risks
If a human driver faces the choice between a risky lane change or a safe one, they might choose the risky one if it gets them to their destination sooner. Self-driving cars, on the other hand, always prioritise being safe over getting there as fast as possible.
That sounds great on paper, but instinctively we hate it. One anonymous reader of the Emerging Technologies Blog who lives in California and sees the experimental cars every day said that driverless cars "drive like your grandma." This is often how we see it when a car is excessively safe. They could be going faster, so why aren't they? It makes us angry! That anger and impulsiveness is what makes us crappy drivers who think we're good, skilled drivers. Self-driving cars, on the other hand, don't get impulsive, as that same author pointed out:
They're never the first off the line at a stop light, they don't accelerate quickly, they don't speed, and they never take any chances with lane changes (cut people off, etc.)
Google fully self automated cars seem to be a little overly-cautious at intersections where visibility is limited: Think a T-intersection where a big truck or a bush blocks visibility for the road that needs to turn either left or right. The Google car I saw inched forward very slowly with a lot of pauses, as if it was stopping to get its bearings even though it obviously hadn't pulled forward enough to "see" anything. It appeared very safe, but if I had been behind it I probably would have been annoyed at how long it took to actually commit to pull out and turn.
You may not be able to turn yourself into an emotionless robot while behind the wheel, but you can choose to prioritise being safe over getting to your destination slightly quicker. If you could make a yellow light if only you'd speed through, slow down and wait instead. If you just barely have enough room to turn left across three lanes of traffic, wait until you have plenty of room instead.
And if reading those suggestions makes your blood boil as much as writing them did, maybe you (and I) should practice chilling out instead of trying to take greater risks to shave a minute or two off your commute. The consequences of waiting slightly longer will never be worse than getting into potentially getting in a wreck, destroying your car, and potentially injuring or killing yourself or someone else.