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Debunking Self-Driving Myths: Your Kids Won’t Need a Driver’s License

Drivers License and Education Collage

Editor’s Note: In this series, Ground Truth asks industry experts to address some of the most pervasive misconceptions about self-driving technology. Here, Michelle Krebs, director of automotive relations for Autotrader Group, tackles a myth about the next generation of drivers. 

For decades, it’s been a rite of passage for American teenagers: Failing your first driver’s license exam.

That painful experience aside, the process of becoming a licensed driver in the United States has meant an awful lot of positive things for the nation’s youngest motorists: Freedom, responsibility, the promise of unrestricted mobility, and new opportunities for breaking curfew. But with autonomous vehicle technology gaining traction, the prospect of self-driving cars whisking the next generation from home to school and back has some people asking: Will my kids even need a driver’s license?

The short answer is yes, says Michelle Krebs, director of automotive relations for Autotrader Group. (Though your children’s children may choose not to get one.) She points out that right now, there are no Level 4-capable self-driving vehicles—those designed to operate without human assistance under specific conditions—widely available in commercial service, such as ride hailing services. And until the vehicles are available at scale, and are guaranteed to take teens wherever they want to go, they will still likely opt for the freedom that comes with a driver’s license. 

“Personal mobility the world over is a big thing—especially for young people,” Krebs says. “That freedom of movement leads to socio-and-economic upward mobility. That is incredibly important from a psychological point of view.” 

While we will certainly see self-driving vehicles commercialized in the coming years, especially in ride-hail and delivery contexts, we are still “a long way off” from personal ownership at a mass scale, Krebs says. “One of the fallacies people have bought into is, I’ll have an autonomous vehicle in my garage soon. But we are so far from that, and initially they are going to be expensive, that it just makes more sense for autonomous-vehicle developers to do them in fleets, rather than to try and sell them to individuals.”

What is easier to imagine is the ways in which autonomy might change the perception of the value of a driver’s license. This will initially be based on the would-be driver’s geographic setting. “Most self-driving technology will be focused on urban areas, to relieve traffic congestion, or to do last-mile services or deliver packages,” Krebs says. As is largely the case today, the kids who skip out on licenses will likely be urban dwellers. “But I grew up in rural America, and it’s hard to imagine that autonomous vehicles are going to be able to cover that huge part of this country any time soon.”

As rideshare services have become widespread and home deliveries have taken the place of some errands, teenagers may be feeling like they don’t need licenses as desperately as they once did. Some may just choose to delay getting them. But, even when autonomous vehicles arrive at scale, teens will still want the freedom to drive at certain times. “If you want to go on a trip, there’s not going to be robotaxis that go everywhere that you want to go,” Krebs says. “There’s still going to be that need for a driver’s license—driving is just not going away anytime soon.”

Then again, even if the need for drivers licenses doesn’t change, the nature of drivers’ education likely will, says Krebs. “When I took my driver’s licence exam, there was no cruise control and no power steering,” she says. “Look at those of us who grew up without anti-lock brakes–you had to unlearn pumping the brakes when that changed.” As we enter the age of autonomous vehicles, “there will possibly be a lot of un-learning and re-learnings.”

In other words, it’s not that we will be unleashing fewer licensed teenagers on the road; it’s that we’ll be simply changing the way we train them. 

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