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Driving Licences and Licence Checks in the Era of Automation

Posted: Friday, 18 May 2018

'Driver-less' driving through the deployment of automated cars is all but a foregone conclusion in the minds of many. Whether or not it actually comes to fruition is a matter of debate. But assuming it does, both driving licences and electronic licence checks are going to be drastically different. The era of automation will usher in a whole new way of earning, issuing, and maintaining driving licences.

To get a good idea of why things will be so different one need only pay attention to the news. As time marches on, we are gradually seeing more new stories detailing accidents involving automated cars. Some of those accidents have even been fatal. In almost every case, the fault is not with the car – it is with the driver.

Too Much trust in their Cars

On May 7th, 2016, an American man driving his Tesla Model S crashed into the side of a lorry and died. The accident was tragic enough on its own. It was made even more tragic after an official US government report revealed that the accident was the result of the driver willfully ignoring the car's warning systems and expecting its autopilot to do what it was never designed to do.

Data from the car's computers showed that the driver's hands were on the steering wheel for just 25 seconds during the total 37 minutes they should have been on the wheel. The car's visual warning system notified him at least seven separate times that his hands needed to be on the wheel.

In the end, government officials exonerated Tesla by finding no defect in their equipment. The crash was caused by a driver who failed to take responsibility and ultimately drive the car himself. It comes down to a driver putting too much trust in his car and not enough trust in his own driving skills and common sense.

Here in the UK, another Tesla driver recently lost his driving licence and received a hefty fine, in addition to being sentenced to 10 days of rehabilitation, for setting his car on auto pilot and then moving to the passenger seat where he could stretch out and relax. He falsely believed that the autopilot system is foolproof.

Driving Will Never Be Driver-less

What so many people fail to understand is that the dream of driver-less cars is just that, a dream. It is neither reality nor ever expected to be. There is no way to produce completely autonomous vehicles unless they run on a closed circuit, such as the track. As long as vehicles travel open routes that are not physically constrained, complete autonomy is not possible.

Anyone who doubts this should take a close look at the airline industry. Commercial pilots have had the capability of deploying both autopilot and fly-by-wire since the 1970s. But decades later, you still don't see commercial airliners taking off without pilots, co-pilots, and navigators on board. Why? Because technology can fail. We still need experienced people in the cockpit to take over in the event something goes wrong.

The same is true for driving. No matter how advanced our technology becomes, it is always subject to failure. Someone will have to be behind the wheel and ready to take over in the event of emergency. To attempt to make driving completely driver-less is suicide.

Drivers Will Become Tech Managers

None of this is to say that automated driving will not be drastically different from the kind of manual driving we do today. It will be. As such, the function of the driver will also be different. Rather than manual operators of our vehicles, we will likely become managers of driving technology instead.

It is quite likely that tomorrow's drivers will be learning less about how to make U-turns and parallel parking and more about how to monitor our cars automated systems. Rather than learning how to reverse into a parking space, drivers will be learning how to override a car's controls in order to prevent an accident.

This new kind of driving will require both a new kind of training and a different kind of driving licence. Therein is the big difference. Our cars will still require licenced drivers who know what they are doing, but the new driving licence will reflect an entirely different kind of training.

This will play out in electronic driving licence checks as well. Licence checks will reveal past violations, but those violations may not be for things like speeding and careless driving. Let's face it; it's going to be harder to speed when the car is on autopilot. No, tomorrow's violations are likely to be more along the lines of not properly monitoring systems or not responding to computer-generated warnings.

Electronic licence checks will also reveal drivers who are not fit to be on the road. They may have past violations or they may not qualify to drive certain kinds of vehicles they want to drive professionally. In either case, licence checks will sort it all out.

A More Realistic View

Even as modern society embraces the idea of automated driving, scientists and engineers are working on the technologies that will bring some form of it to reality. In the meantime, we all need to take a more realistic view of what the future holds. Automated driving does not mean 100% driver-less.

We are still going to need driving licences to operate vehicles in open traffic. We are still going to have to take driver training to learn how to do so safely. And those among us who fail to drive legally and safely will run the risk of losing our licences due to violations or accidents.

In the meantime, there is still plenty to worry about within our current driving paradigm. It includes maintaining our driving licences, driving safely, and following the rules of the road. We will have nothing to worry just as long as we all make a concerted effort to do things the right way.