Audi leads the way in driver training, and why we need to change our driving curriculum

Humans have no idea how to assess risk, and that’s why most driver training isn’t effective.

PEOPLE ARE more worried about being attacked by a shark, mugged in an alley or bitten by a snake than crossing the road. But statistically, you’re far, far more likely to die on the roads than from just about any other cause, even after allowing for the fact we spend more time on the roads than in the water or in the bush.
Humans are very bad at assessing effects in general; we’ll jump at the chance to save a few cents per litre on a tank of fuel, but won’t bother taking the same amount of time to rethink our super investments which would be worth orders of magnitude more. The skill of marketing is basically exploiting our emotions to make us do illogical things, ideally when we think we’re being logical.
Modern driver training recognises these human deficiencies and focuses on our attitude to risk taking, as opposed to imparting purely mechanical car control skills. We have fully explored this concept here, and there’s a counterpoint here. This new thinking about risk-based training has left us with two driver training focus areas; attitude to risk, and car control. But in today’s world there’s a third, very important skill, one that Audi are the one of first to recognise. 
Back in the day cars were simple, and pretty much all the same. You had four manual speeds, a stereo if you were lucky with six or so push buttons and a cassette, a dial for volume and a slider for heating. I remember one very wet, very windy, very cold and dark evening (in Melbourne, natch) when I was picking up a Nissan Patrol GU on test which was stood in the middle of a large carpark. I sprinted from the office to the car at a speed that nearly saw me aqualane, unlocking the car as I slowed from warp speed. Inside, I started the engine, put the heater on max, set the demister, turned on the lights, put the radio on my favourite station, adjusted the seats, then the mirrors and checked it was in 2WD. All this took about ten seconds and I barely looked at the controls, using both hands at the same time.
I couldn’t do that in a modern car. It’d be touchscreen this, scroll that, prod something to see if it’s actually a control or not…it’s all so bloody hard to use even when you’re stationary, let alone moving. Touchscreens are perhaps the best example of poor user-interface design; you must look at the control because it cannot be operated by touch, unlike a dial, switch or lever. That means there’s a very high risk of the driver getting into trouble because they’re fiddling with their car instead of paying attention to the road, and that is why I argue that ANCAP should focus on usability as a safety criterion.
And that’s just the basic controls, let alone the new kit. There’s so much new safety and driver aid technology –  anti-lock braking, stability control, active cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot warning, lane departure warning, lane change assist, parking aids, electric power steering and much more. Each of these systems makes the car safer, easier to drive or both, and all are designed so that the driver just drives and doesn’t need to worry about the tech.
Except it doesn’t quite work like that, and this is what Audi have recognised. To get the best from the tech the driver now needs to be shown that the features exist, and how to use them. And in some cases, not to use them and just let the car do the work.
Examples – in a emergency stop older drivers might attempt cadence braking when the best idea is simply to slam the brake pedal to the floor and let ABS, EBA and EBD handle the stop. Stability control is a wondrous safety system for correcting skids, but humans tend to put too much faith in tech and forget it cannot rewrite the laws of physics, and even if ESC does kick in then it’ll be much more effective if at the same time the driver is also correcting the car manually.  
The new tech of AEB is fantastic, but despite the TAC’s insistence, it will not always stop you in time – we’ve explored this dangerous fallacy in full here. Active cruise control is a huge timesaver, but it too has its limitations; for example if you follow behind another car on a freeway and pull out to overtake slowly, your car won’t speed up until you’re fully in the other lane – if you were driving manually, you’d speed up as you pulled out to overtake. And then there’s the myth you need to disable stability control for fast driving in sportscars on roads. Simply, you don’t need to as the ESC on any decent sportscar is designed to allow enough slip for speed, but not enough for a skid, and if you get to the point where it kicks in you should be on the track.
So there’s many, many little but valuable pointers to learn about modern cars, and that’s why it’s good to see Audi recognising this and building technical demonstrations into its driver training. As chief instructor Steve Pizzati says, “it’s amazing that the number of customers we have who say ‘I’ve had my car for insert-number-of-years and I didn’t know it could do that”. 
In many ways, this sort of training is analogus to flying training. In what many call a pure aircraft such as a glider it’s all about stick and rudder controls, because there’s very little else to use – really just some instruments and a radio. As you move up into powered flying there’s more and more systems to manage, until you get to airliners and there’s very little hands-on controlling to be done, it’s all about letting the computers do the work and oversight. That’s exactly where cars are going too, and that’s why driver training needs to change to the point where it becomes operator training.
Another analogy is smartphones – few people fully use their smartphones capability, with many features left unused or used wrongly. But that’s fine, because unlike cars, not knowing how to operate a smartphone isn’t likely to kill someone.

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Andrew Riles
Andrew Riles
7 years ago

Great article Robert, and spot on too….

Touchscreens on mobile devices drive me crazy at times, usually because they have misinterpreted my inputs and clicked instead of scrolling or zooming (or not working properly because they are dirty), and that is certainly something I don’t want while driving…..

The screens are great for displaying easy to interpret information, in the same way as a gauge is, and being able to configure them to show the info you want (while stationary of course) is also great, but having to interact with them on the move is a PITA….I remember getting frustrated at Holden for incorporating the speed alert into the trip computer on the VE Commodore…..I didn’t feel safe using it on the move, where the VZ had a separate speed alert that was much easier to operate….

7 years ago

Trouble is how one contends with risk compensation of a driver who overestimates the ability of all this safety tech.

I see many a euro driver drive beyond the capabilities of any safety measure.

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper