• Automated Driving Systems
  • Driver Assistance Systems
  • Advanced Driver Assist Systems

Driving Tests Need an Update for Modern Vehicle Technology

Sam Abuelsamid
Dec 21, 2021

Guidehouse Insights smart car

It’s no secret that driver’s license testing in North America is both lax and wildly out of date. As automotive technology has advanced in recent decades, the testing regime hasn’t changed much. When I helped my kids prepare for their tests, they were essentially doing the same tasks I did nearly 30 years earlier. As driver assist systems, connectivity, and electrification become ubiquitous, we need a major overhaul of the licensing process. 

Better training and evaluation of young drivers is an essential component of improving road safety. 16- to 20-year-olds account for the highest proportion of traffic fatalities with 14% of deaths while only making up 7% of the population. Fatality rates then steadily drop with age until the cohort is over 65. However, testing only evaluates the most basic of vehicle operation skills and does nothing to make sure young drivers know how to safely utilize new technology.

Driving Habits Are Changing with New Vehicle Technology

In late 2021, The Drive reported on a case in California where an examiner failed a teenager for utilizing the regenerative braking system on the family Tesla that was used for the test. The result was appealed and later reversed, but this case highlights that the evaluation process needs to be updated. 

The examiner cited the teen for not using the brake pedal as expected. Like most modern EVs, Teslas are capable of strong regenerative braking that can bring the vehicle to a complete stop by simply modulating the accelerator pedal. Using the electric motor to recuperate kinetic energy and put it back into the battery has the advantage of improving driving range and reducing brake wear. This setup also reduces cognitive workload for the driver by eliminating the constant movement of the right foot between the pedals and the possibility of pedal misapplication, which can lead to sudden unintended acceleration. 

It’s possible to do most driving without ever touching the brake pedal. Although this method is not the traditional approach to driving, licensing evaluations need to be adapted to current technology, especially as that technology becomes pervasive. 

Driver Assist Technologies and Other Factors Change Driving Methods

Driver assist technologies are another example of functionalities that are not factored into testing. Features such as antilock brake systems (ABS), stability control, and blind spot monitoring change the way we use vehicles but are not evaluated. Even knowledge of basic defensive driving techniques such as skid control and emergency evasive maneuvers are never tested.

I didn’t get to learn any of these skills as a novice driver, but I was fortunate to learn them in the early stages of my engineering career as I began testing ABS. We got to spend hours practicing car control on a test track, which made me safer on the streets in the sort of edge-case conditions that are the biggest challenges to automated systems. 

When my children were learning to drive, I took them both out to a large empty parking lot as soon as we had a snowfall to practice car control and get exposure to the technologies found in modern vehicles. They got to experience what it feels like when ABS or traction control activates, how to firmly squeeze the brake and steer on a slippery surface, and how to steer into a skid when I pulled the hand brake from the passenger seat. It’s probably unrealistic to expect driving tests to incorporate all these elements, but efforts need to ensure that young drivers understand how modern safety technology works, where to use it, and how to reduce the risk of a crash when it doesn’t work.