Requiring AI To Get A Driver’s License For Legally Driving A Self-Driving Car

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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Clever mock-up of a driver’s license for a self-driving car

Some teenagers complain about the gauntlet they need to confront when seeking to become a licensed driver.

I’d heard scuttlebutt among some teenagers at my children’s school that maybe there was a kind of conspiracy going on, in which adults were scheming to keep kids from driving cars. Rumors were that only a tiny percentage of teens that passed the licensing requirements would actually get anointed with a license.

I mulled over this theory and found out that by-and-large most teens do get their driver’s licenses (assuming they take things seriously), and in terms of the licensing roadblocks trying to keep them from doing so, well, it sure seems prudent to make sure that anyone licensed to drive is properly qualified and ready to do so. That’s not a conspiracy, that’s just plain sensible, I’d say.

When you consider the act of driving a car, it becomes apparent that there are two major elements of certification about the matter.

There is the aspect of ensuring that the human driver is ready, able, and formally certified to drive, which is achieved by the driver’s license or permit, plus there is the need to make sure that the car itself is also properly certified.

You likely don’t put much thought toward the fact that the car you are driving had to meet various federal regulatory guidelines in order to be on the public roadways. Per the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), all cars on our roads are supposed to satisfy a rather hefty number of federally mandated requirements. The requirements encompass the full scope of car elements, including the car design, the construction of the car, the performance of the car, it’s safety, its durability, and so on.

In the United States, we have chosen to use the federal government to certify cars, and in contrast chosen to have the states themselves certify the human drivers of those cars.

Does it have to be that way?

Nope. It’s custom and tradition.

We could certainly decide to have the feds certify cars and certify drivers, doing both, if that’s what we wanted to do as a society. The states though have historically held onto the driver certification aspects. You could assert that it makes sense to have the states certify drivers since each state also comes up with their own driving regulations. The tricky part is that the federal transportation laws regulate travel between the states and in the end, it has fortunately turned out that most states tend to have by-and-large similar regulations, easing the driving across the vast landscape of the United States.

If you are wondering whether perhaps states opt to regulate cars and also regulate drivers, the basis for having the feds regulate cars themselves is to again foster an across the United States ease of using your car.

There is also the case to be made that by having one entity, the federal government, regulating cars the matter is simplified for the auto makers (else they’d need to be negotiating endlessly and/or trying to comply with each of the 50 different states individually).

Overall, it seems to be a pretty workable approach.

Pertinent Aspects Of Human Driver Licensing

Most of the driver’s licensing requirements are about the same, though the type of vehicle can cause the driver licensing steps to differ, and some would say become more stringent too for when driving a bus or similar multi-person vehicle of a larger size (this seems sensible, since one could argue a bus is a more complicated vehicle and also one that holds the lives of a multitude of passengers at once).

There are about nine major steps when getting a driver’s license.

First, you need to achieve a minimum age to seek out getting a driver’s license, which is typically around the age of 16 or 17.

You also need to be able to appropriately deal with the physical driving aspects, such as being able to use the brakes, the accelerator pedal, and the steering wheel.

The age requirement is really a surrogate for whether or not you as a human seem ready to tackle the serious and life-or-death decisions that need to be made when driving a multi-ton car on our roads.

You need to then show proof of residency in the state that you are applying for a driver’s license. This makes sense due to my earlier point about the states being in the driver’s seat when it comes to the licensing of human drivers.

Often, you need to show proof that you have taken a driver’s education (driver ed) course. Some states don’t require any driver’s ed, some do.

Another step that you normally must undertake is agreeing to the rules of the road and acknowledging that you are being granted a privilege to drive in that state.

Driving Is A Privilege, Not A Right

Many people seem to think that you have a right to drive a car, as though there is an amendment to the constitution that says every person has the constitutional right to drive.

Anyway, the state can revoke your privilege to drive.

For most of the states, you need to pass several kinds of tests to be able to get your driver’s license.

There is usually a vision test.

There is usually a written test that questions your knowledge about driving of a car. These written knowledge tests are often only 20 to maybe 50 questions in size. Admittedly, it is just a random selection of questions and hopefully is sufficient to detect whether someone knows much or not about the whole matter.

There is usually a driver’s roadway test. This involves getting into your car and having a human passenger that is your tester, grading you as you drive around the local area of the test.

Driver Licensing And Also Certifying The Car

Back to the steps about getting certified as a driver, once you’ve done all of the aforementioned steps, you do a few other paperwork things and ultimately are granted the driver’s license. In some states, there is an initial probationary period, during which the tiniest infraction can get your driver’s license revoked. In some states, you are able to drive before you take the tests, doing so on a probationary basis, though this usually requires that a licensed driver be in the car with you whenever you are driving.

Recall that I’ve mentioned that there is the car driver certification and there is the car certification. In terms of the car certification, though a car might be certified to be on our roadways, this does not mean that the car is “perfect” in terms of how it works and will perform on the roads.

You can be a good driver that is driving a “lousy” car. Or, you can be a bad driver that is driving a “good” car. It’s a duality.

The duality is important to keep in mind. Today, as you know, cars don’t yet drive themselves (more on this in a moment). Humans drive cars.

Whenever there is a car accident, you cannot immediately leap to a conclusion that it was caused by the driver per se, since it could be that the car itself failed and there was no action feasible by the driver to avoid getting into the accident. You need to consider the car and what its condition was, along with the driver and their condition.

AI Autonomous Cars And The Question Of AI Needing A Driver’s License

What does this have to do with AI self-driving cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One of the most vital and somewhat vexing questions that we face as a society involves the certification of AI self-driving cars.

Allow me to elaborate.

I’d like to first clarify and introduce the notion that there are varying levels of AI self-driving cars. The topmost level is considered Level 5. A Level 5 self-driving car is one that is being driven by the AI and there is no human driver involved.

For self-driving cars less than a Level 5, there must be a human driver present in the car. The human driver is currently considered the responsible party for the acts of the car. The AI and the human driver are co-sharing the driving task.

Another key aspect of AI self-driving cars is that they will be driving on our roadways in the midst of human driven cars too.

Returning to the topic of the certification of AI self-driving cars, let’s consider key aspects on this controversial and as yet unsolved problem.

Should We Be Certifying Or Licensing AI Systems For Driving Purposes

First, take a look at Figure 1.

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Once we have true AI self-driving cars at a Level 5, who should be certifying or licensing the AI driver?

It’s a serious question. I say that it is serious because sometimes people laugh when I ask the question. There laughter stems from the notion that the AI is a kind of robot, though not one you necessarily see in the self-driving car (it’s not a walking-talking physical robot).

Assume that an auto maker or tech firm has developed an AI self-driving driverless autonomous car. The AI does the driving. There is no human driver for this brand of car.

How do you as a human passenger know that the AI can readily, properly, and appropriately drive that AI self-driving car?

Pedestrians on the streets of Los Angeles want to also know that the AI self-driving car coming down the road is being driven by an AI that can readily, properly and appropriately drive that self-driving car.

We have lots of humans that need to be reassured that the AI of the self-driving car “knows” what it is doing, including passengers in that AI self-driving car, and human drivers of other nearby cars, and human pedestrians that are nearby the AI self-driving car, and so on.

Who Will Do The AI Driving Certification

It could be that the states each take on the role of doing the driver certification — of course, this has been the role that the states undertake for human drivers. Some though wonder whether the states ought to be doing so.

Maybe the federal government ought to be doing the AI driving systems certifications. Why, you might ask?

In the case of human drivers, there are millions of those. Furthermore, those millions of human drivers presumably need to be assessed by the state to make sure that those human drivers meet the requirements of the state and are versed sufficient to drive in that state. It’s kind of a factory of trying to deal with those millions of human drivers.

In the case of AI driving systems, presumably we’ll only have as many as there are AI self-driving car models. Let’s guess that it will be in the low hundreds, using the fact that today there are about 250 or so brands of cars in the United States.

The states no longer would seem to need to be geared up to handle millions of drivers (those humans), and instead would only need to focus on hundreds of drivers (AI driving systems). This also assumes a situation whereby AI self-driving cars become prevalent and there are less and less human drivers to be certified.

Perhaps it would be more economical to have the federal government certify or issue a driver’s license (or equivalent) for the AI driving systems, rather than the states.

There are some that even extend this logic and suggest that perhaps the state ought to certify the car and the car driver (the AI) altogether, since the state is getting dragged into the certification of the AI.

It is a conundrum.

How Will The AI Driving Certification Take Place

Take a look at Figure 2.

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For human drivers, I’ve already mentioned the nine major steps that they must normally perform to be able to get a driver’s license. Of those nine steps, there are some steps that involve testing by the certifying entity, the state, in terms of whether the driver (human) seems ready and able to be a licensed driver.

Humans usually need to pass a vision test. Right now, there is no equivalent to a vision test as administered by a certifying entity for an AI self-driving car. What does a vision test have to do with an AI self-driving car?

You could assert that the equivalent would be a test of the sensory capabilities of an AI self-driving car.

Human drivers usually need to pass a written knowledge test about their driving awareness and understanding. Should there be an equivalent for AI self-driving cars?

Right now, states are tending towards asking for documentation from the auto maker or tech firm, doing so to gauge what the auto maker or tech firm claims their AI system “knows” about. This though does not necessarily involve testing of those aspects. Instead, it tends to be more of a paper-based review, rather than any kind of “test” to ensure that the AI system has or does what the documentation claims that it does.

Should there be a “knowledge” test administered by the certifying entity to an AI driving system for which an auto maker or tech firm is trying to get certified to drive on the public roadways?

And, what about the infamous and terrifying roadway driving test that is administered to human drivers seeking a driver’s license. Should a certifying entity require that an AI self-driving car be taken on a road test by the certifying entity, similar to what is done with human drivers?

At first glance, I am guessing that you might be tempted to say that sure, the certifying entity ought to conduct the vision test, or more broadly tests of the AI sensory systems of the self-driving car, and ought to have the AI undertake some kind of written knowledge test, and ought to have the AI self-driving car undergo a roadway test.

We expect human drivers to pass the battery of tests, why not also expect the AI to do so.

Part of the muddiness involves what kinds of tests you would devise for these purposes. How extensive would the tests be? Where and how would the tests be conducted? Can you do sufficient testing to believe that the AI self-driving car is ready to be on the roadways?

For human drivers, once you are a licensed driver in any of the states, you pretty much can readily drive in another state, doing so without having to get an additional driver’s license.

One concern about AI self-driving cars and testing would be that if a state certified the AI driving system, and suppose that another state does not acknowledge that as a valid certification for AI self-driving cars in their state, it would mean that when your AI self-driving car reached the border of that other state, the AI self-driving car would need to come to a halt and not enter into that state. If the AI self-driving car continued ahead into the other state, doing so would mean that the AI was unlicensed and illegally driving in that state.

More Twists Involved In The AI Driverless Certification

There are additional twists about the testing of AI self-driving cars for certification purposes.

Would the AI driving system be tested on the public roadways or instead (or in addition) be tested on a closed track?

Another approach to testing could be the use of simulations. The certifying entity might establish a simulation that encompasses driving in their state, and then have the AI driving system have to take that test. The advantage is that the simulation could force the AI to drive millions upon millions of miles, doing so far beyond what might be feasible in roadway driving tests.

One concern about any of the testing is that the AI you are testing is not necessarily the same AI that will be driving the self-driving car.

If the AI has Machine Learning or Deep Learning capabilities, it is going to be changing over time, doing so by hopefully improving as it “learns” more and more about driving. We don’t know for sure that the AI is going to become better at driving and could actually get worse or introduce nuances that can get itself into trouble.

Here’s another interesting twist. When a certifying entity is trying to test an AI self-driving car, how far can they go in doing so? Can they go beyond the normal everyday driving acts and push the boundaries of what might happen while driving a car? These are at times referred to as edge or corner cases.


Currently, we all rely upon an entity to certify that drivers in the cars next to us are at least minimally certified to be able to drive a car. When you look over and see that empty driver’s seat and realize the car next to you is being driven by AI, you ought to feel some comfort that one way or another there was a bona fide and independent process of trying to test and ensure that the AI driving system is up to the task at-hand. That’s a rite of passage needed for AI self-driving cars.

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Copyright © 2019 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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