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Safety Tips You Can Learn from Self-Driving Cars

Car technology is moving at a pace we’ve never seen before. Self-driving cars will inevitably take over the roads, but not for a while. In the interim, we can learn important safety tips from self-driving cars to make our world a lot safer.

There are many reasons why self-driving cars are safer than humans behind the wheel. We text, talk on the phone, get distracted, let emotions take over, nod off, fail to signal, drink alcohol, take prescriptions, and much more.

Since cars were first invented, we have added safety features that help reduce the chance of accidents, injuries, and fatalities—seat belts, anti-lock brakes, air bags, etc.

But no matter how safe we make cars, the least safe variable is always the driver.

Over the last two decades or so, engineers, scientists, and car manufacturers have focused on removing the human element completely.

In doing so, we can learn many tips for improved driver safety.

The Problem

1.3 million people die on the world’s roads every single day. That’s equivalent to over 8 commercial jet airliners (Boeing 747s) crashing every single day and killing everyone on board. In the United States alone, 37,000 people die in road crashes every year (ASIRT).

Traffic is also a huge problem. It’s substantially worse than it was just 10 years ago. According to 2014 Census data (The Washington Post), American workers spend 29.6 billion hours commuting every year. That’s a collective 3.4 million years driving to and from work. Wow!

Google’s self-driving car project, now called Waymo, has published reports based on its tests of over 3 million miles of self-driving vehicles on real roads in cities like Mountain View (CA), Austin (TX), Kickland (WA), and Phoenix (AZ). This is in addition to the billions of miles driven in simulation.

Source: Waymo/Google

The millions of miles driven on real city streets have taught Google a lot about driverless vehicles and have taught us a lot about how drivers can improve their driving habits for increased safety on the roads.

This technology will come to market soon. Watch this video to learn what a driverless world could look like:

Self-driving cars will make the world a safer place, but it will be a long time before prices drop low enough for the majority of people to be able to afford one.

Luckily, there has been a lot of information gathered from driverless cars that can make our own driving behaviors a lot safer.

How does a self-driving car see the world?

Self-driving vehicles create a rich, logic-filled map of their surrounding area using 360-degree sensor systems, including lidar (laser and radar), GPS, odometry, and cameras. They not only see what’s around them, they also anticipate what’s going to happen.

How a self-driving car sees the world (Google Waymo)

“The two red rectangles are cyclists; the red trails behind them indicate the path they’ve just traveled. The cyclist on the left had entered the left turn lane, but veered back into our path to continue straight across the intersection. At the same time, the cyclist on the right entered the intersection, traveling against the flow of traffic. That cyclist then took a sudden left turn, coming directly at us in our lane. Our car was able to predict that cyclist’s path of travel (turquoise line with circles) so we stopped and yielded. This happened at night, when it would have been very difficult for a human driver to see what was unfolding.”

Source: Waymo Team/Medium

This map not only knows where things are at the moment, it also works with other complicated parts of the car to predict what might happen in the near future.

It’s extremely complicated how these pieces of machinery can detect different types of objects—cars, bikes, cones, debris on the road—and anticipate and react to what’s going to happen 1 second, 3 second, 10 seconds from now.

Not only does the self-driving car need to know about the lane change up ahead and what the truck in front is going to do (quickly merge), it also needs to know about the goings on of everything else.

After taking everything around it into account, the car then needs to know how to act—which trajectory to take, how slow or how fast it should move. Then, the car must make the executive decision to steer left or right, press on the brake or hit the gas.

Driving Safety Tips Learned from Self-Driving Cars

  1. Anticipate the behavior of other drivers

While you don’t have the amazing ability to detect objects in a 360-degree radius, you still have an amazing amount of computing power in your head. Use it to keep track of the objects around you and what they are going to do.

For instance, a vehicle inching out of a driveway may not be able to see you. A vehicle at high speeds is approaching a red light—you can guess that it will barrel through the light.

Despite what’s supposed to happen, you can tell what actually is happening and prevent an accident by anticipating future actions.

Forget about what’s supposed to happen, anticipate what actually is happening.

  • Pay attention to everything around you. Predict future movements based on the unique circumstances around you, such as construction zones, pot holes, objects in the road, distracted motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, school zones, etc.
  • Drive conservatively around cyclists. If there is a cyclist up ahead, keep in mind that they may need to swerve into your lane to avoid doors (aka dooring), glass or other obstacles in the road. Leave plenty of room for these sudden movements. Learn more driving safety tips when sharing the road with cyclists.
  • Look at the driver as well as the vehicle. If the driver is paying more attention to their phone than the road ahead, you can exercise extra caution. Pay attention to distracted drivers—they are more common than ever.
  • Before you make a lane change, use your mirrors and look over your shoulder to see what the cars around you are doing. Someone else may be trying to merge at the same time. Look at the driver for clues as to what they may do.
  • Don’t trust turn signals. Some people learn this the hard way when they start driving in a different area of the country. You may live in a town that has great drivers who reliably use their turn signals, but move to a different town or city and you’ll be in for a rude awakening. Not everybody does. A driverless car doesn’t trust turn signals for reliable predictions of future movement and neither should you. If you are at a stop sign and see a car coming towards you with their right turn signal on, do NOT assume they are making that right turn. Wait until they commit to their turn before you commit to your next move. Use turn signals whenever turning/merging and watch for them, but NEVER trust them.
  • Don’t tailgate. You The DMV handbook says to use the “three-second rule”—look at the vehicle ahead pass a specific point in the road and then count a full three seconds. If you reach that point before the three seconds are up, you are too close. Use the four-second rule during adverse conditions, such as rain, snow, darkness, gravel roads, and metal surfaces. Extra room should also be given if you are being tailgated from behind, a driver wants to pass you, towing a large load (extra weight makes it harder to stop), following large vehicles that block your view, a driver wants to pass you, or when merging onto a freeway.
  1. Admit that other drivers are fallible and so are you—prioritize safety

This isn’t a judgement of how good or bad you drive—we all make mistakes. Driverless cars assume this as fact and so should you.

For at least the next decade, most drivers will still be human and like you, they want to arrive at their destination as fast as possible. Mistakes will be made.

  • Don’t let your emotions cloud your better judgment. This relates to the former point about tailgating. Just because you don’t want anyone cutting in front of you doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t leave a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. This not only slows down traffic, but can also cause an accident. And it’s usually because of emotion and your belief in fairness and the ethics of line-cutting. Driverless cars don’t have this problem and you should do your best to avoid it. Let the driver pass you and leave enough room to do it safely.
  • Yield to the right of way, but be aware that others might not. Knowing when to yield can save you from countless accidents. Chances of a collision increase dramatically at intersections. If another vehicle fails to yield, however, let them. Better safe than trying to prove something and cause an accident. Learn right of way rules on the DMV website, but don’t assume others have this knowledge. Like a self-driving car, look for behaviors and intent; don’t assume knowledge and execution of the rules.
  • Make up for the fact that your vision is inferior. While you have the very helpful ability of object permanence, you cannot see in all directions at once like a self-driving car. This is why you should constantly be checking your mirrors, at least every five seconds (including rearview and side mirrors). This gives you a much better understanding of everything going on around you. It’s also a good idea to scan the road and periodically check the left and right of your vehicle. This can help you identify a person running a red light, stop sign, or a kid running into the street. Using your mirrors properly and scanning the road will help you spot a potential accident before it happens. You can be like the future-seeing precogs from Minority Report.
  • Always prioritize safety. Self-driving cars don’t have egos, emotions, or amygdalas like us fallible humans. Yes, they will have Emotional AI to make the automotive experience more pleasant for humans, but this won’t affect their driving habits. While humans may make a risky move to cut down on travel time, self-driving cars will always prioritize safety. You can learn from this. Many drivers hate slow drivers who drive the speed limit, slow down when kids are around, and make other “grandma” moves. This is the kind of attitude that causes accidents. Self-driving cars are like “grandma” drivers—they drive the speed limit, don’t accelerate quickly, and are overly cautious when it comes to merging and intersections. 

You are a human, not a robot. Emotions are deeply imbedded into your decision-making process. But, prioritize your emotions of fear over aggression, and love over anger. Learn from self-driving cars and always rank safety over timeliness in your algorithm. Cutting a few minutes off your commute or trying to beat the GPS’s estimated arrival time is never worth the potential ramifications of a deadly or injurious accident.

  1. Collect data from the roads

  • Know your route before you start driving. Self-driving cars plot their trajectories well in advance. Get in the habit of looking at directions before heading out on the road. This allows you to have more confidence on the road and stay on the side of the freeway where your exit is.
  • Glance at GPS for traffic updates. Google, Waze, and other GPS apps tell you about upcoming traffic, construction zones, and other useful information. Even if you know your rout by heart, you can increase your road knowledge by mounting a GPS in an easy-to-view area near your dashboard. Glance at it like you would your odometer, and take note of any upcoming road warnings. Of course you’ll never have access to the rich, data-filled maps of self-driving cars, at least you’ll know the basics. And you may even save time by finding a better alternative route home.
  • Take different routes. Have you ever forgotten what happened on your commute? When you take the same route every day, you start to go into autopilot mode and tune out your surroundings. The more familiar your world, the less you remember and the quicker time seems to pass. That’s why time seems to fly by as we get older and why taking the same route every day can lead to accidents. Switch things up, change your route, and increase your powers of observation. Try leaving 10 minutes early and taking the scenic route instead. You’ll discover new things, increase your happiness, and reduce the risk of an accident.

More Driving Safety Tips:

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