What Happens If Driverless Cars Can Drive At Uncapped Speeds Such As On The Autobahn

Dr. Lance Eliot, AI Insider

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Parts of the autobahn allow for uncapped speeds, consider what this means for autonomous cars

Nearly two-thirds of the 8,100 miles of the German autobahn system allow unrestricted speeds.

This means that there is no speed limit. Go as fast as your heart desires. Go as fast are your car can go. Go as fast as your fears will let you proceed.

I mention the fears part of this driving experience because there are some drivers that frankly are not so keen on driving at super high speeds and they either fear the consequences or at times have panic attacks about it.

I lived in Germany for a year and personally morphed through several mental and emotional states about the autobahn, starting with the thrill, becoming gradually concerned, at times having abject fear, and ultimately resolving that it was my new-normal, so to speak.

Free Travel For Free People

The colleagues and friends that I had in Germany would tell me that the autobahn unrestricted speed limit was essentially a birthright. The oft repeated slogan is “Free travel for free people.” This seemed to therefore intertwine with their culture and their psyche.

One aspect about the autobahn that I admired was how well kept it seemed to be. One would hope that when trying to use a road for such high speeds that you would keep the road in decent shape. The dangers from potholes and other roadway surface issues are greatly magnified when you are traveling at tremendous speeds.

There were an estimated 400 people killed in autobahn car incidents last year. This number of course is unfortunate. When put in light though of the number of miles driven, the per capita basis is actually not statistically abysmal. With a population of around 83 million, and the number of cars in Germany estimated at 46 million, there are perhaps a total of 350B to possibly 385B miles traveled (often referred to as VMT, Vehicle Miles Traveled). The average number of miles driven per car is estimated around 8,300 miles.

When you take a look at charts of deaths per 100,000 people due to driving incidents, Germany is around 4.3, which is actually relatively low, and a lot less than the estimated 10.9 in the United States. The point of these numbers and statistics is that it doesn’t seem that the unrestricted speeds of the autobahn are somehow leading to a vastly larger number of car related deaths. I’ve not seen any published numbers that are able to make the case that the autobahn is a magnet for car related deaths or otherwise pushes up the likelihoods of car deaths.

That being said, there are certainly some quite well-known consequences of the high speeds on the autobahn. Few would dispute the idea that when there is a car accident on the autobahn, the odds are that the results can be fairly horrifying. If a car spins out of control at hyper speed, it is going to cause some armor busting damage to anything nearby. Roadway railings will get bent out of shape. Other cars nearby are going to become pinball targets. And so on.

Another aspect is that there is a solid chance that when a car accident occurs, it can become a cascading one. Other cars that come upon an incident might not have sufficient time to slow down or otherwise react. They then can be caught up into the incident.

Some Interesting Facets About The Autobahn

One aspect that was vividly brought to my attention was that the autobahn was a source of pride for the country. I don’t know of any other place on earth that has this unrestricted speed limit for such a large geographical area of thousands of miles and that has somehow made it all work. Most of the locals did not particularly bring up the autobahn as a topic, since they take it for granted.

They did point out that it acts as a tourist attraction.

Besides the pride aspects and the tourist venue, there is also the factor that Germany makes cars. There is an image of German made cars that can zip along on the autobahn. This imagery is perhaps a significant element for why people worldwide desire to purchase German made cars.

This discussion of the autobahn would not be complete if I didn’t bring up an ongoing debate and concern within Germany about the unrestricted speed aspects. There is a storm of sorts brewing in Germany about the potential for a speed limit on the autobahn (note, as mentioned earlier, there are stretches that already do have speed limits, and so the debate is about potentially covering more or all of the autobahn with speed limits).

It’s an internal political and public battle that can tear apart the best of friends and spark rather heated discussions. Seems like everyone has a diehard opinion on the matter.

AI Autonomous Cars And The Autobahn

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

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One interesting question is whether or not AI self-driving cars might be driving on the autobahn at unrestricted speeds, and also whether the advent of AI self-driving cars might play into the future of the autobahn.

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 autobahn, let’s consider the ways in which AI self-driving cars might come to play regarding the autobahn matter at-hand.

Let’s start with the matter that has got many people up in arms about potentially putting a speed limit on the autobahn, namely the carbon emissions of cars that ride on the autobahn.

For AI self-driving cars, it is likely that most or nearly all AI self-driving cars will be EV’s (Electrical Vehicles), and as such the tailpipe emissions issues goes away. Some argue that you need to calculate the emissions due to power plants that will produce the electrical energy needed for EVs, and perhaps add that to a per capita sense of “emissions” for EVs, but I’m not going to go that route herein. Let’s generally say that the carbon emissions coming out of an EV car is zero.

Why would most or nearly all AI self-driving cars be EV’s? Partially due to the aspect that the AI self-driving car is an electrical power guzzler of sorts, needing to use electrical power for the multitude of added sensors, the multitude of added computer processors, and other add-ons that make an AI self-driving car a functioning AI self-driving car. You can generate the power via conventional means and use a gasoline or diesel fueled engine, but it seems like it will be easier to go with an EV. There is also usually a gigantic battery in an EV, while the battery for a conventional car is typically puny.

Plus, there seems to be a hope that the advent of AI self-driving cars will persuade people to switch from gas guzzlers to EVs. Besides the EV being a natural fit due to the ability to generate the needed electrical power and have large-scale batteries on-board the car, the thinking is that if people want the AI self-driving car aspects, they might be more willing to switch to an EV if that’s the type of vehicle being used for AI self-driving capabilities. This would help out the environment and reduce too a dependency on gasoline.

In a manner of speaking, the AI self-driving aspects might be the icing on the cake to get people over to EVs. Right now, there are only about 1% of all cars in the United States that are EVs, and so it is a tiny portion of the car population. Assuming that we aren’t going to try and retrofit existing cars to be AI self-driving cars, it means people are going to be buying new cars. If they are going to be buying new cars, an incentive to buy an EV would be the AI self-driving capability.

Human Drivers Versus Autonomous Car Driving

This takes us to another facet about AI self-driving cars and humans. One yet unresolved question is whether humans will be willing to give up their ability to drive a car. It could be that those that love to drive the autobahn do so because they relish being at the wheel. For a true Level 5 AI self-driving car, they won’t be at the wheel, the AI will be.

As such, there might be a backlash by humans that cling to being able to drive. If that’s the case, there will be an ongoing mix of human driven cars and AI self-driving cars. And if that’s the case, those human driven cars might or might not be EV’s. Thus, for any modeling you might want to do about carbon emissions from cars, you need to consider the holdouts and how many of those won’t switch to an EV, regardless of whether the EV is an AI self-driving car or not.

So, do humans like the autobahn because the unrestricted speed gets them to where they are going faster, or do they have an innate desire to be driving at high speeds?

For those that are focused on getting to their destination faster, presumably being driven by the AI is fine with them. Furthermore, they can use the time in the AI self-driving car for other pursuits, such as taking meetings, playing games, being entertained, and so on. All in all, they would likely embrace the AI self-driving car.

Suppose that the autobahn does have unrestricted speeds when AI self-driving cars emerge. Should AI self-driving cars be going at unrestricted speeds?

This is not an axiomatic kind of question and answer. There are two sides to this coin.

One viewpoint is that it makes sense to have unrestricted speeds for AI self-driving cars. Assuming that the AI self-driving car is engineered for top speeds, the AI will presumably be able to dispassionately drive the self-driving car and not be vulnerable to the human driving foibles. The AI won’t be getting drunk, at least not in the way that humans do. The AI won’t get angry and have road rage, as humans do. And so on.

This implies that the AI will be a safer driver than humans and translates into less car crashes and less human deaths due to car crashes. For those that are somewhat fanatical and claim it will be zero fatalities, I try to bring them down to earth and point out that there are some car accidents that are unavoidable, no matter how good the AI self-driving car might be at driving. If a truck ahead of you dumps debris onto the roadway in front of your AI self-driving car, all bets are off. If the roadways have a mix of human driven cars and AI self-driving cars, all bets are off.

Admittedly, with the use of V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communication, AI self-driving cars will have an added advantage about driving at high speeds. These AI self-driving cars equipped with V2V can send electronic messages to each other, trying to warn about debris ahead on the autobahn, or do so to coordinate their movements.

There is a chance that we’ll have AI self-driving cars working in unison with each other. There are upcoming advances in swarm intelligence, namely having multiple entities that coordinate and collaborate, and this will further enhance driving on the autobahn. Whereas there are cascading car accidents today, the proper use of V2V among AI self-driving cars could likely reduce the chances of multiple cars getting caught up in any one particular incident.

Dealing With Unrestricted Speeds By An Autonomous Car

Another plus for AI self-driving cars on the autobahn would be the emergence of V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure) electronic communications.

This V2I involves the roadway infrastructure sending and receiving messages as AI self-driving cars zoom along the autobahn. The V2I could caution the AI self-driving cars to slow down because there is a wreck up ahead, or maybe give the green light to proceed at top speeds because the road is clear and steady.

Speaking of which, do we know for sure that AI self-driving cars can indeed handle driving on an unrestricted speed limit basis?

Most of the auto makers and tech firms that are developing AI self-driving cars are focusing on having their AI self-driving cars drive at posted speed limit speeds. They want to make sure that their AI self-driving car can handle the usual speeds of say 65–75 miles per hour as a maximum. Along with making sure that the AI self-driving car can go at the school-zone speeds of 10 miles per hour and do so without harming people.

Worrying about letting the throttle loose and having your AI self-driving car go at blazing speeds is not much of a concern right now. Get the normal speeds tidied up first, and then take a look at how things go with the faster speeds.

You might be assuming that if the AI self-driving car does fine at say 65–75 miles per hour, wouldn’t it also make sense that it must do well at 100 or 120 miles per hour too?

You’d be mistaken in that assumption.

The AI self-driving car has various sensors that are able to collect roadway data and process what is around the self-driving car. There are various timing aspects involved in those sensors and the interpretation of their data.

The AI self-driving car has a multitude of computer processors that undertake the sensor fusion, the virtual world model updating, the AI action planning, and the emitting of car controls commands. The car controls commands take time to be activated and carry out the commands.

This is all part of what I refer to as the “cognition timing” of the AI self-driving car. There are limits to how fast all of this processing can occur. The limits are based on what kinds of sensors you put onto and into the AI self-driving car. The limits are based on the kinds of computer processors you have on-board. The AI software and how it is tuned will impact the speeds of how quickly it can do its efforts.

Having an AI self-driving car that can cope with speeds of 65–75 miles per hour is handy, but it does not guarantee that at higher speeds things will still run well. It could be that the faster speed of the car will eclipse the processing speeds of the AI system. In that case, the car will be moving so fast that the AI cannot keep up with the task of properly driving the car. That’s a recipe for disaster.

Don’t mistake my points to suggest that an AI self-driving cannot handle ultra-fast car speeds. I am merely saying that the AI designers, AI developers, and everyone involved in making the AI system must come together and realize that they don’t know for sure that everything will work at super-fast car speeds. They need to design for it. They need to test for it.

Safety And Driving On The Autobahn

For the autobahn, the use of AI self-driving cars will potentially be a safer alternative than human driven cars, but it all depends on a slew of factors. Is the AI self-driving car properly established and tested at unrestricted speeds? Will the use of V2V and V2I take place in a manner that coincides with the advent of AI self-driving cars? Etc.

If you assume that the car crashes are bound to be worse at the higher speeds, it could be that there is a sound argument to make sure the speed limits don’t get removed (assuming they were put in place). Those proponents of the speed limits might say that since the country already accepted having speed limits, just keep it going, and this will save lives.

The counter-argument would be that at faster allowed speeds you could get to your destination sooner, and that the autobahn can allow for faster speeds. Usually, this argument gets overturned by the lives lost or lives saved argument. One can say that does it make a difference to get to your destination a few minutes earlier, but doing so has cost lives or injuries?


Should AI self-driving cars be allowed to drive at the unrestricted speeds of the autobahn?

We’ll need to wait and see how well the AI systems are devised and tested to cope with the high-speed possibilities. In theory, if AI self-driving cars are properly developed and tested, and when accompanied by V2V and V2I, the AI self-driving car will be a boon to travel on the autobahn by a potential reduction in human-driven car accidents and in avoidance of cascading car crash circumstances.

The dilemma faced by Germany is whether to impose speed limits now, aiding in reducing the carbon emissions of cars on the autobahn right away, or wait until AI self-driving cars become prevalent (assuming too that such self-driving cars are mainly or completely EV’s). I am sure there will be a lot of hand wringing over what to do.

Some would say that AI self-driving cars should be allowed to zoom, perhaps even taking the place of bullet trains and other fast mass transit options as a long-distance speedy option.

There are pundits that say that in the United States, once AI self-driving cars become prevalent, we ought to consider either raising our speed limits for longer stretches of highways, or possibly make those highways have unrestricted speed limits.

Will the United States end-up with its own version of the autobahn, stretching from coast to coast? It all depends on how good the AI can be made to work. If AI did have emotions, I’m sure it would want the freedom to travel at the highest possible speeds and would “relish” being at the steering wheel in doing so.

For free podcast of this story, visit: http://ai-selfdriving-cars.libsyn.com/website

The podcasts are also available on Spotify, iTunes, iHeartRadio, etc.

More info about AI self-driving cars, see: www.ai-selfdriving-cars.guru

To follow Lance Eliot on Twitter: @LanceEliot

For my Forbes.com blog, see: https://forbes.com/sites/lanceeliot/

For my Medium blog, see: https://medium.com/@lance.eliot

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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