Things Even Self-Driving Cars Need To Learn


This last weekend I had a chance to participate in the Mercedes Advanced Driver class at Laguna Seca Raceway near Monterey California.  This was a powerful course that included obstacle training, a gymkhana track (timed competition), drift training on an oval (which I sucked at sadly), and a ton of track time in a variety of cars driving at speed on the race track.  At just short of $4K per person, this course isn’t cheap. But if you’ve ever calculated what two days of heavy driving on a track costs in a high-end car with coaching, this is actually a bargain.

I was pretty happy with my track driving until the end.  At the end of the course you get to ride with one of the instructors who drives you at race speed.  In my case, it was the head instructor and the car was an SLS Black edition; he drove at speeds typically reserved for aircraft, and I discovered an affinity for at least three religions before I got out of the car.  The typical reason why this is done last and not first is because there are cases where students try to emulate what the instructor has done and they actually do become aircraft, which typically doesn’t end well.  

There were some things I learned that apply to regular driving and they aren’t obvious.  In addition, since I’m working with several firms on autonomous driving, there was one thing that occurred to me that we likely need to consider with regard to programming the computers on self-driving cars. 

Lessons Learned

One of the clear lessons I learned is that my driving instructors when I was growing up were full of crap.   Seriously, the number of things I had to unlearn was almost embarrassing, and I’ve been driving since I was 12.   

The right way to hit the brakes is hard first then back off.   We were taught to ease down on the brakes but, particularly with ABS, if you are driving at speed and need to slow down, pound those puppies, because if you enter a corner too fast it won’t end well.  The rule with corners in particular is “slow in, fast out.”  They showed us over and over again that not only could you drive faster by over slowing into a corner, you could drive far more safely by doing so.   The one crash that we had on the course appeared to be from someone who didn’t pick up on this, and it apparently cost a $70K engine.

Always be moving your eyes and looking where you want to go, not where you are going.  I actually learned this when riding a motorcycle, as there are tons of stories about drivers on a bike who hit trees with plenty of room on either side to go around.   When your car starts to slip, your tendency is to look where the car is going and then unconsciously steer right where we don’t want to go.  In a motorcycle, where most of us don’t realize you steer in the opposite way you want to go, this’ll kill you… but it isn’t much better in a car.  If you look where you want to go and ease off the gas, there is a far better chance you’ll go there.   (As a side note, this was the one part of the course that just didn’t work. We were trained on an oval, but even the best driver in our group, which wasn’t me, was still spinning out at the end.  When I’ve seen this work, they just keep you on the track till you get it and then move on; we did two laps at a time and never got there).

Look ahead.  This is actually something we all should have learned in drivers ed but most of us didn’t.  We tend to get tunnel vision or just kind lose track of what is around us.  I was in three pretty nasty accidents where the person behind me just wasn’t looking and plowed into me at speed.  One poor woman nearly killed her baby and hit me so hard I sheared off the back of my seat and ended up in the back of the car (surprisingly unhurt).  If you have an attention problem or poor impulse control you will likely kill yourself or someone else.  

Self-Driving Cars

Virtually everything I’ve noted above, but one, is programmed into self-driving cars.  The one thing I think the models have missed is the need to brake hard first and not ease into the brakes.  This is because the systems are designed for comfort as well as safety; but if we were talking snow or ice, I can see situations where this could be a problem even though self-driving cars shouldn’t be driving anywhere near the limit.  This is because the sensors currently in use don’t sense ice before the car is actually on it. Yes, they can measure temperature, but often you can have black ice well above freezing temperatures during the day, particularly in the shade where it is even harder to see it.    With a hard-initial brake, there is a better chance the car will slow before the ice or notice it sooner, either one of which could make all the difference in the world. 

Wrapping Up:

At the end of the course, my track time was competition level for race cars on that track in the ‘60s.   This shows you how far technology has come to even the playing field because ABS, Traction Control, Vectored Braking, and other tech we put on high end cars allows a moderately good driver to drive safely well above their skill level today.  I’m not suggesting you do that, but if you take a course like this one you’ll not only become a better, safer driver, you’ll actually come to appreciate much more of the car you bought. 

If I were asked how to improve this course I’d add simulators because they can be as effective as lead follow initially, have less risk, and are far cheaper to use.  I’d actually have the trainers, after they get to know the drivers, recommend the AMG car the driver should drive and take them out in it, and I’d make sure the student got to drive a car like the one they own on the track, or someplace more appropriate.  On this last point, I was left thinking that the only folks that would buy AMG SUVs were idiots because SUVs would suck on the track.  This is why my next car will likely be a Ford Raptor and not a Mercedes; the AMG Training folks don’t seem to get performance trucks even though they make them, and I now live in Truck country. 

Would I recommend this course? For the right person, certainly, but mostly for those that want to drive track days.   The basic course, which is far cheaper and a day shorter, is likely better focused for most.   They have another course I now want to take on drifting which will, I hope, address my one frustration with this course.  Eventually I hope they discover they make performance trucks and create an appropriate course for them, but I had a ball and, for anyone that wants to learn how to drive on a track and not get passed by lesser cars safely, the AMD Advanced driving class at the AMD Academy is wonderful.  

Edited by Alicia Young
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President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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