Teaching autonomous vehicles to drive like (some) humans

While I love driving, I can’t wait for fully autonomous vehicles. I have no doubt they’ll reduce car accidents, 94 percent of which are caused by human error, leading to more than 37,000 road deaths in the U.S. last year.

And if it means I can fly home at night in winter and get safely shuttled to my house an hour-plus away — and not have to endure a typical white-knuckle drive in the dark with torrential rain and blinding spray from 18-wheelers on Interstate 84 — sign me up. Autonomous technology will also take some of the stress, tedium and fatigue out of long highway drives, as I recently discovered while testing Cadillac Super Cruise.

AVs are also supposed to eventually help increase traffic flow and reduce gridlock. But according to a recent Automotive News article, as the first wave of AVs are being tested on public roads, they’re having the opposite effect. Part of the problem is they drive too cautiously and are programmed to strictly follow the written rules of the road rather than going with the flow of traffic.

“Humans violate the rules in a safe and principled way, and the reality is that autonomous vehicles in the future may have to do the same thing if they don’t want to be the source of bottlenecks,” Karl Iagnemma, CEO of self-driving technology developer NuTonomy, told Automotive News. “You put a car on the road which may be driving by the letter of the law, but compared to the surrounding road users, it’s acting very conservatively.”

I get it that, like teen drivers, AVs need a ramp up period to learn the unwritten rules of the road and that a skeptical public has to be convinced of the technology’s safety. But this is where I become less of a champion on AVs, since where I live in the Pacific Northwest we already have more than our share of overly cautious human drivers.

Since moving here 12 years ago, I’ve found it’s an interesting paradox that a region famous for its strong coffee, where you’d think most drivers would be jacked up on caffeine, is also the home to annoyingly measured motorists. As an auto-journo colleague living in Seattle so aptly put it: “People in the Pacific Northwest drive as if they have nowhere to go.” If you drive like me and always have somewhere to go — and usually are in a hurry to get there — it’s absolutely maddening.

I’m all for AVs unless it means the roads will be clogged with milquetoast robot drivers that always follow speed limits or never pull a California roll at a stop sign when other cars are stacked up behind. The good news is that developers are working to make cars more human, i.e., more like regular corner-cutting drivers.

Automotive News noted that Waymo is teaching its self-driving cars to creep forward at flashing yellow lights. And Kyle Vogt, the CEO of Cruise Automation, which was acquired by General Motors last year, said in a blog post last month that the company’s latest autonomous tech is “designed to emulate human driving behavior but with the human mistakes omitted.”

Let’s hope that also includes not camping out in the left lane below the speed limit. I’m looking at you, lady in the black Subaru on I-84 last Wednesday, only one of about a half dozen left-lane laggards I encountered that day.

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