What can we learn from self-driving cars?

As it currently stands, self-driving cars have a safer track record than most human drivers. Of course, they are yet to be deployed on a large scale (before you rush out to sell your car and grab an automated one!), but a study from Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, commissioned by Google, found that self-driving cars had 3.2 accidents per million miles, compared to 4.2 accidents per million miles for humans.

The study also stated it believes that self-driving car accidents weren’t as severe as accidents involving humans, but they couldn’t prove it.

It is still too early to say that driverless cars would definitely be safer in mass use, but they do offer some advantages – mainly they are not subject to human decisions and emotions. Even if they are not ready for the roads, they can teach us a few things about safer driving, which we have taken a look at below:

Pay attention to where people are going, not just where they are

Chris Urmson, Google’s head of its driverless car program, has explained how their cars view the world. The cars ‘watch’ other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to see where they are and predict where they intend to be.

Self-driving cars are able to track many different objects and their trajectories at once, and you might not be able to keep a track of as many objects as they do, but you can still anticipate where a car is going to be.

For example, if you see a car approaching a changing traffic light at speed, chances are they are not going to stop. You may be clear to proceed your end, but if you do, you will come into contact with the speeding car.

Likewise, you may be able to see how a driver is acting, not just their car. If you see a driver eyeing up a lane to change into, this gives you a clue about what they are going to do next. If they are doing this, wait and see how they act before you make your move.

If you spot a driver on their phone, get some distance between yourself and them before you turn or change lanes; their full attention is not on the road so you cannot tell what they are going to do next.

You need to also keep an eye out for indicating, but don’t always trust them. Many driving experts say you shouldn’t commit to your turn until the other person commits to theirs. How many times have you been driving behind someone who is indicating, only for them to drive past every turn? They may have forgotten to turn their indicator off, so be sure to keep this in mind before you pull out in front of another car.

Keep an eye out for obstacles beyond the car in front of you

While you may spend most of your time focused on the car in front of you when driving, self-driving cars have a much broader view of the world. Unlike humans, they are able to see in all directions at once and can see in more ways than the human eye.

Google’s self-driving car was able to spot a cyclist using laser sensors long before it was visible to the human eye. While you may not have the same sight as a self-driving car, you do have object permanence in your favour.

Having this awareness of objects around you is very important in order to avoid hitting them. It is said that you should check your side and rear view mirrors every five seconds when you are driving. Since driving conditions can rapidly change, checking to make sure you know where other cars and objects are around you at all times is an important driving habit to get into.

It is also a good idea to keep scanning around when you are at junctions, to see where other road users are and where they are heading. Instead of using the red light as a time to zone out until it turns green, take a look around you and you could spot a potential accident before it happens.

Play it safe rather than taking unnecessary risks

If a driver is faced with the choice between a close lane change or one that is 100% safe, they may pick the riskier option if it gets them to their destination sooner. Self-driving cars, on the other hand, will also prioritise safety over speed.

This sounds great on paper, but us humans hate being stuck behind ‘slow’ drivers. However, these slow drivers are often the ones driving safely, but their actions generate a lot of hate from fellow drivers. This anger causes humans to be impulsive and often results in unnecessary risks being taken.

However, self-driving cars are never impulsive. They are never the first off the line, they don’t accelerate rapidly, take chances with lane changes and they do not speed.

You won’t be able to turn your emotions completely off when you’re behind the wheel, but you can certainly prioritise being safe over arriving at your destination a fraction quicker. If you need to speed up to make an amber light, slow down and wait instead. If you only have a small amount of room to get across a lane of traffic, wait until you have plenty of room before making your move.