Driver education: RIP

Recently I published a short article for about the Autonomous Nissan Leaf, a vehicle engineered by Nissan to demonstrate the current state and future possibility of fully autonomous cars: that is, cars that drive themselves.

Now you may think that such a technology is not realistic; not practical, but I’m telling you, autonomous-drive is developing at a very fast pace. I’m really surprised at how it just seems to have arrived, almost fully formed, almost out of nowhere.

But if you were paying attention, or if you reflect on some of the new safety technologies made available in cars over the past decade, you can see the pieces falling into place.

Anti-lock brakes enable your car to stop in a controlled fashion without skidding; proximity sensors detect vehicles around you, radar gives intelligence to your cruise control, cameras detect vehicles approaching and passing, parallel parking is managed by a self-steering automatic system, stability control adjusts for wheel slip and lateral forces, lane departure systems alert the driver if the car wanders, and in some cases, will intervene and make corrections, and forward crash alerts and intervention will stop your car if an obstacle is detected in its path.

Put all that together and consider these technologies interfacing with your navigation system, and it’s not hard to imagine getting into your car, using a voice activation system to input your destination, whereupon your vehicle selects its direction of travel, confidently backs out of your driveway or parking space, and heads for the nearest “autonomous-only highway” where you can get busy with your messages, do some work, catch up on the news or maybe watch a movie on your car’s display. Granted, there are details to work out, but you get the idea.

So here’s the thing. Recently I was talking with Angelo DiCicco, General Manager of Young Drivers of Canada, and something else clicked into place as I blurted out, “Holy crap; your profession is DOOMED!”

It was too funny (not really, but you know…). I was thinking at the time of the postal workers, demonstrating in response to Canada Post’s decision to phase out home delivery. They, of course, don’t want to lose their jobs which is completely understandable, but the problem is, they’re going to need something to deliver, and the issue is that paper messages are being replaced by electronic ones. So all of a sudden, driving instructors start to look like the postal workers of the automotive world. When cars can drive themselves, who needs an instructor?

Think about it: according to Mr. DiCicco, only one-percent of Young Drivers of Canada students opt to learn on a car with a manual transmission. One-percent! That means almost all of the program’s graduates can’t shift gears, so here’s a skill that’s already pretty much disappeared. Don’t need to teach that!

Mr. DiCicco – a nice guy who was intrigued and amused by the “doomed” observation — observed that with the preponderance of rear-view cameras, people are also losing the ability to back up their cars without electronic aids. What happens if such a person gets into a car with no rear-view camera and a manual transmission? And imagine in a few years time, with no navigation system or push-button start?

“OMG. Like, what is this? A relic?”

Mr. DiCicco, a veteran of the the driver education industry, was sanguine. “I’ve got another ten years,” he said. After that, it’ll be all about the interface.”

Yes, indeed. The interface. Ford’s Sync; Cadillac’s CUE, BMW’s iDrive. This is what people will need to know how to operate. The car’s connectivity, which is acquiring features never imagined in vehicles even a few years ago. Full internet browsing, headline news, weather and stock market reports at the press of a BMW ConnectedDrive button; restaurant suggestions and reviews, streaming music, and more.

It’s a busy place behind that steering wheel. And hey, who’s going to need a steering wheel, anyway? It’ll probably be a joystick for those brief periods where like in Star Trek, the enterprising captain has to step in and “take it manual.”

Nissan says they’re aiming for a fleet of autonomous vehicles by 2020. I guess the good news is that the insurance industry may also be doomed. Cars won’t hit each other, right? We won’t need to pay premiums! Take that, State Farm.

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