It was a simple instruction – pull out of the garage. When you get to the end of the drive, stop, look around, then turn right onto the street.

My 15-year-old daughter looked at me like I was speaking in tongues, not a foreign language but the guttural squawks and grunts of primates in a remote jungle. She looked at the steering wheel, the gear selector, the pedals, and the mirrors. She looked back at me. “How do I do that?”

That’s when I realized exactly how much work is ahead for the engineers working on advanced safety and autonomous drive systems. I thought I was giving simple instructions. My daughter is a great student who has a real knack for picking up complex concepts, but she’d never operated a car. And, every step I’d told her to take required an understanding she didn’t have.

Pull the car out of the garage really means:

  • Put the key in the ignition and turn it 45° clockwise
  • Press down on the brake pedal (the horizontally opposed one in the middle) with your right foot
  • With your right hand, move the gear selector from P to D, being careful not to go all the way to L
  • Look up to ensure the path is clear
  • Slowly lift your right foot off the brake pedal (and don’t be surprised when the car moves by itself)
  • Keep an eye on mirrors so they don’t hit garage walls
  • Steer away from obstacles if you don’t have enough room
  • Daily drivers forget how complex operating a motor vehicle can be. Seemingly simple things require complex hand and foot operations, blind-spot checks, and judgment calls.

    Automating all those steps means carefully identifying everything a human does, telling a computer to do that, then fixing the mistakes when you tell the computer to do the wrong thing. As someone teaching a teenager how to drive, I can tell you that the last step is the most complicated.

    After realizing how much she had to learn, I focused on the basics – this is the steering wheel, the brake pedal, and the gas pedal (I’m training her on my wife’s automatic Ford, not my manual Chevy). We’ve spent a lot of time in empty parking lots.

    So, the second time I took her out to drive on streets, I thought she’d interpret the instruction “turn left onto the street” correctly. She almost did. She pulled into the street, then she turned left – a maneuver that might work in a video game, but cars aren’t particularly good at 90° turns. So, back to the instruction stage – begin turning as you move onto the street, imagine turns as curves, not angles.

    She’s getting it. Each trip is better than the one before, and I’ve been able to stop myself from shrieking in terror when she’s made mistakes that put us in the oncoming traffic lane. Hopefully, the next generation of self-driving cars have patient programmers telling them what to do.