5 Things Your Kids Won't Learn in Drivers' Ed — But Should
Automation is making our cars safer. But are we losing basic driving skills as a result?
On June 1, 2009, Air France Flight 447 fell into the Atlantic Ocean on a routine overnight flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, killing all 228 passengers on board. While the cause of the crash is still under investigation, here is what Federal Aviation Administration investigators think unfolded on that fateful night.
Four hours into the flight, the Airbus A330 experienced turbulence and extreme icing, causing its speed sensors to malfunction and stop transmitting critical information to the plane's automatic pilot, which apparently caused the plane to slow down. The pilots in the cockpit shut off the autopilot before the plane stalled. Unfortunately, they were as blind and confused as the autopilot. Rather than increase the plane's speed and thus lift, they apparently slowed the plane even further, a move contrary to basic rules of flight. As a result, the plane began to stall and plummeted to the sea.
If this course of events is true, it raises a question: How could seasoned pilots for a top airline, flying one of the industry's most advanced jets, not know how to regain control of the stalling aircraft? Investigators concluded that modern airline pilots spend so much time minding automated systems and so little time actually flying that some are not up to the task of piloting a plane when the automation fails.
So why are we telling you about Flight 447 in a story that is supposed to be about automobiles? It's a warning: We fear that car drivers, pilots of the roadways, are becoming too reliant on automated systems and have let their driving skills lapse, and even worse, that our kids will never know how to drive without these systems.
While not as automated as airplanes, cars are clearly becoming increasingly computerized. These computers have input in controlling everything from braking to navigation to traction. Anti-lock braking systems keep us from braking too hard. Traction control keeps us from skidding out. Adaptive cruise control makes sure our vehicles automatically maintain speed and slow the vehicle when it comes too close to the vehicle in front. And these are only a few of the technologies that automakers are working on to make vehicles safer. Their efforts are paying off; vehicle-related fatalities are at an all-time low.
However, what happens when these automated systems fail? Will we — or, more importantly, will our children — be up to piloting an automobile without all the high-tech bells and whistles?
Frankly, we don't know. So, just what skills are in danger of disappearing? Here, we list five driving skills that are very important but that are becoming increasingly unnecessary.
Fewer than 10 percent of new cars sold have clutch pedals, and driver's education courses haven't featured manual transmissions in their cars for decades. Consequently, the chances that a driver will encounter a manual transmission along with someone willing to teach them how to use it are growing rare. Even the Richard Petty Driving Experience, a NASCAR-themed driving school, has found it necessary to push-start patrons so they can take off in fourth gear for their oval-lapping fun.
It's a shame, really. Manual transmissions provide unexcelled vehicle control. But probably their greatest benefit is that they more thoroughly involve the driver with what he or she is supposed to be doing: driving. It doesn't take a behavioral scientist to conclude that a more engaged driver is a safer driver.
Parking a minivan parallel to the curb, between two other cars, used to take lots of practice and patience. Today, a driver can hit a button and the car will parallel park almost by itself. The newest self-parking systems scout for a suitable parking spot while driving past parked cars, then control the steering while the driver operates the throttle and brake during the actual parking procedure. In other words, the parking computer makes all the tough decisions.
Anyone learning to parallel park such a car certainly won't be eager to try their skill in a conventional auto, which leads us to believe drivers will become even less serious about judging close distances and turning radii.
Brakes were one of the first systems to be automated with the adoption of anti-lock braking in the 1980s. Lately, more automation has arrived, with brakes that press harder if deemed necessary by a computer, along with the brakes' self-application via radar-guided cruise-control systems. All are much appreciated, and clearly the advent of full-time radar-controlled brakes awaits foreseeable technical refinement, not to mention the legal shielding needed by the first manufacturer brave enough to offer them.
We predict that hitting the brakes is such a primal human response to danger that we can't imagine drivers will ever cede 100 percent of a car's stopping duties to a computer. But what is being lost is fine braking control, the skill of applying just the right amount of braking power under difficult conditions.
OK, handling a car on snow or ice was never a strong point of driver's education programs. "Steer into the skid," whatever that means to a clueless teenager, was about the only advice offered. But today, anti-skid, traction and stability-control electronics have changed the game. Add in a meaningful percentage of all-wheel-drive SUVs on the road, along with excellent snow tires, and today's drivers rarely experience a pulse-raising slide until there is nothing they can do stop it.
Offsetting this are all those electronics, which do an admirable job of reconnecting the steering wheel to the pavement. But do today's young drivers learn the same respect for winter snow or summer downpours that their parents did? It's unlikely, and when the situation goes suddenly bad, do these drivers — like our airline pilots — have the skill necessary to save the day? Or more importantly, does a driver who has come to rely on electronics to stay straight in the snow ever build the knowledge to identify especially challenging driving conditions? We can't see how.
What could be easier than turning a car's headlights on and off? Years ago it was that simple. Now auto-on headlights and daytime running lights are here to add a touch of complexity. Drivers can place the headlight switch on "auto" the day they take possession of a car and never touch the headlight switch again.
For many this is convenient, but all courtesy and common sense about headlight use seems to be dying. One of the worst offenses is headlights left blazing while the car is parked on the shoulder at just the right angle to blind oncoming traffic. It's as if never having to handle the headlight switch means never having to think about where the headlights are shining.
What Should Be Taught
Taken one at a time, none of the technologies we've highlighted is a meaningful threat to drivers' abilities. But together they form an environment that minimizes hands-on skills and, more importantly, disengages the driver mentally from driving the car. In aggregate, these technologies are isolating the driver from the road and others on it.
So if they aren't teaching parallel parking or manual shifting, let's hope driver's education programs include a strong dose of decision-making skills. The new technologies may make many older driving skills nearly obsolete, but knowing where to look and what decisions to make is more important than ever.
Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson's credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.
- Visit MSN Autos' "Exhaust Notes" blog to keep up on all things automotive.
- In the market for a new car? MSN Autos is pleased to provide you with information and services designed to save you time, money and hassle. Click to research prices and specifications on any new car on the market or get a free price quote through MSN Autos' New-Car Buying Service.
Must-See on MSN
Three things that are not taught in driver education: How to deal with bicyclists, how to deal with motorcycles, and probably most important, how to deal with big rigs on the freeway, especially within a city. Share the road with the bicyclists, even if it means you have to <horrors!> slow down for a moment or two to safely get around them; watch for the motorcyles - they're vehicles and pay all the attendant taxes and fees to use the road as well; and for God's sake, don't cut in front of an 18-wheeler and then stand on the brake, expecting it to stop on a dime. You never know what kind of load they're carrying.
Have to agree. I'm 47, so suddenly I'm an old guy. Back in the stone age of 1980, my dad made me learn to drive in a stickshift pickup. I even took my road test in that truck before I ever got behind the wheel of an automatic. I was pissed at the time--but I am so thankful for it now.
I'm also a private pilot, and fly 1979 Cessna with old style instruments and no auto-pilot. I got a chance to test fly a new $632,000 Cirrus. The demo pilot just kept turning on the auto pilot and the "glass cockpit" NAV features. Don't get me wrong--they're way cool tools and would be great to have. However, he wouldn't stop and let me see how the plane actually handles. He was a 20-something, and frankly, I'm not sure he really knows how to "fly the plane" or how to find his way from point A to point B if the GPS signal is lost.
Automobiles are just part of the problem in their pathetic lives. Steer into a skid? Modulate the brakes manually because the ABS has failed? Even changing a flat tire seems to be a challenge because they've never been taught how to operate a jack and secure the vehicle properly so it doesn't fall on them. They should learn how to drive in a car with no power steering, no power brakes, manual transmission, no ABS, etc. Feeling the raw mechanics of a car firsthand may do them some good.
In my state you used to have to be able to drive a manual transmission to get your license. All my siblings had to do it, but I was the youngest and by the time I was ready to get my license they had eliminated that requirement. Didn't matter because my first car was a stick, so I learned out of necessity.
BMW runs a skid school for young drivers that tours the country every so often. This type of training should be integrated into every driver education training program. At least our state has significantly increased the amount of classroom and behind-the-wheel training required because they got tired of watching 16-year-olds kill themselves because of lack of skill. It still doesn't go far enough. I understand those safety conscious Germans have an excellent driver's education program. Maybe we should adopt it here.
When I taught my kids how to drive (their high school had done away with drivers' ed) I made it clear to them that would not get their licenses until: (a) they could drive a stick, (b) hold the car on an incline without letting it roll backward or forward, (c) parallel park, (d) change a tire, (e) identify certain items in the engine compartment, i.e. dipstick, oil filler, etc. I didn't care what the state said--my authority was greater.
I think knowing the "mechanics" and having a comfort level with the car makes for a better driver. Everyone in my family knows how to do routine maintenance and none of us are mechanics or work with our hands by profession. If you are a boat captain or a pilot, you may not be the mechanic, but you know how the systems function.
When she did her driving test, the state would not allow test to be taken in manual transmission vehicles as they said they were "not safe" (as quoted in regulations) I told them we only have manual transmission vehicles and was told to "go rent or borrow a car then". My work mate (a military attorney) made them a written offer - bottom line she took the driving test in a manual transmission vehicle an the proctor was highly impressed.