SAN DIEGO — Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used in another groundbreaking invention — this time to help people with autism learn to drive.

The program will help students before going behind the wheel. The program is tailored to each individual needs in a controlled environment.

“We don’t want any sector of our population to not have those opportunities to keep enhacing themselves,” said Dr. Mary Baker-Ericzen, a researcher at San Diego State University.

She said for people with autism, “many are very capable of obtaining their driver’s license and being safe drivers,” Baker-Ericzen said.

The National Science Foundation gave a grant to San Diego State University and Vanderbilt University to create the AI driver-training program.

Engineers at Vanderbilt created the AI-based driving simulator system, and Baker-Ericzen is the main author of the cognitive behavioral intervention for driving course curriculum.

Baker-Ericzen said studies nationwide found less than 30% of people with autism seek a driver’s license, which she said leads to fewer people with autism working.

“This is the number one population impacted the most of being under-employed,” Baker-Ericzen said. “It was about this uncertainty, of could they do it, and sometimes fear, actual fear of approaching a driving scenario.”

The program runs for eight weeks, aiming to build confidence and help with focus and emotional control. The lessons combine virtual reality with coursework.

“They will learn in a group environment, it is a curriculum learning information but practicing skills through activity,” Baker-Ericzen said.

After the classroom work, the students advance to the simulators. Isabel Miller and Juliette Meehan are teaching assistants.

Students use the driving simulator with or without the virtual reality goggles. Students are assigned different tasks like braking or accelerating before being sent on simulated trips.

“So I’ll be looking at the participants, seeing how they are driving, checking the one feet versus two feet,” said Miller, as if she was working with a student.

FOX 5’s Alani Letang took the simulator out for a test drive. It felt just like driving on the road, but the controls can be a little more sensitive.

The AI tells you when you have made an error, like not stopping for a school bus or going over the speed limit. Then, the assistants will talk through the mistakes with students.

The students can start the AI program at the California mandatory age for driver education at 15 years old. Teens must be at least 15 ½ to apply for a driver’s learner’s permit in the state of California.

Dr. Baker-Ericzen said their AI program has already boosted driving interest among people with autism.