That has always seemed a strange anomaly, but the increasing complication and automation of road cars suggests it might be time to review that. The rapid deployment of driver assistance systems into cars means that, more than ever, a degree of vehicle-specific driver training is becoming a genuine need.
It might sound a bit ridiculous, but examples of driver confusion are everywhere. When a previously unseen car arrives in the Autocar car park, even seasoned testers can end up spending a minute or two patting down the dash looking for a start button, searching for a place to put the digital key fob or just hunting for some clue about how to bring the vehicle to life.
Ultimately, that situation is annoying rather than dangerous, but when it comes to systems which wrest control of the car from the driver, the outcome could be less predictable.
Driver aids such as stability control, ABS brakes and the like only come into operation when your inputs can be bettered by the car's systems.
The difference with modern autonomous emergency braking systems and adaptive cruise control systems, however, is that they are predictive, and can activate when you aren’t expecting them to. AEB systems will often flash warnings and apply the brakes sharply when you are happily driving along, because the car thinks it knows better than the driver. It can startle the driver and cause them to counter what the car is doing.
Similarly, on the motorway, many adaptive cruise control systems are astonishingly crude, braking sharply when a car changes lane ahead or surging when a car moves out of range. Experienced drivers will cope, but to someone who is relatively inexperienced, such unexpected behaviour could cause alarm and, ultimately, a problem as they try to outwit a car which thinks it is helping them.With cars ostensibly getting smarter, allowing people to get behind the wheel without formal familiarisation could well lead to accidents. It’s not just when autonomous systems kick in unexpectedly, but more worryingly, if you are relying on them and they aren’t activated. In fact, Autocar had a near miss in an autonomous car earlier this year.
The counter argument is that taking judgement calls out of the hands of people who aren’t very good at them should make the roads safer. Potentially, yes, but only if drivers know to expect the car to manage certain situations.
Ultimately, basic car control systems are standardised but autonomous systems do not behave consistently, and training in how to use them should be a prerequisite to anyone being allowed to use them. The speed at which these driver assistance systems are being introduced to ordinary cars indicates that driver licensing itself may need a major overhaul.
One solution to this is to adopt aviation-style certification. Pilots at the most basic level can fly a small aircraft, during daylight. They can fly in poorer weather if they become instrument rated, and if they meet enough requirements, they can carry passengers or fly larger, more powerful aircraft. The aircraft with the most advanced autonomy can only be used by the highest-rated pilots.
Following this model, a basic driving licence would allow the holder to drive a car with a specific configuration. Autonomous and partly autonomous cars would need to be a separate licence category to ensure drivers know how to drive with assistance, and crucially, how to cope when something doesn’t work or switches off unexpectedly.
It may seem a little over the top for something as straightforward as driving a car, but the truth of the matter is that driving a car simply isn’t as simple as used to be. And the cleverer the car purports to be, the greater the responsibility placed on the driver.