Our Need for Speed: It Will Take Time for Autonomous Vehicles to Take Over

April 11, 2018

There is one major reason autonomous vehicles will not take over our nation’s highways, as opposed to our roadways, in the foreseeable future: the need for speed. There are too many people who get their thrill on by going fast.

Why do millions of people ride roller coasters every year? Or watch racing (NASCAR’s problems notwithstanding)? Or get speeding tickets? The need for speed. Whether it’s based on physical excitement or impatience, people want to go fast.

The autonomous vehicle, often abbreviated as either AV or SDC (self-driving car), is all about the opposite of going fast. In order for driverless vehicles to catch on with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), they will have to be safe, and the more speed at which they travel, the greater the chance for an accident.

According to NHTSA statistics, speeding has been involved in approximately one-third of all motor vehicle fatalities for more than two decades.

“In 2016, speeding was a contributing factor in 27% of all fatal crashes,” said NHTSA.

The idea of autonomous vehicles is not a bad one. They are good for heavily congested urban areas like New York City or Los Angeles, and areas with low speed limits, like Main Street USA. And I think millennials will embrace the concept once the technology is perfected.

That may take awhile, however. A woman in Tempe, Ariz., was recently killed by an autonomous Uber — with someone sitting in the driver’s seat, no less. I’m sure that death sent shock waves through the autonomous vehicle community, and may have set back widespread acceptance of autonomous vehicles many years.

Waymo LLC, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. (so you know it has the financial backing to succeed), launched autonomous vehicles in Phoenix last year. It claims they have driven more than 5 million autonomous miles in numerous cities across the country, “largely on complex city streets.” That is in addition to billions of simulated miles, 2.7 billion in 2017 alone.

So you may be closer to having an autonomous vehicle in your service bay than you think. And I hope you will be ready to service it. Smithers Rapra Inc. says electronic systems and sensors will play a much more important role in the decision-making of an autonomous vehicle than in a vehicle managed by a driver. In addition, autonomous vehicles will be managed through artificial intelligence (AI).

The vehicles will still have tires, but their construction “will depend more heavily on the design of the vehicle.” That might take speed ratings out of the equation, and I’m sure that won’t be viewed as a good thing by all consumers.  Speed ratings may not directly apply to traditional high and ultra-high performance tire definitions anymore, but they still apply to handling. It’s not always about the need to go fast, but the need to go faster.

Actual highway driving is a different matter. Will driverless vehicles integrate into normal traffic? Will drivers accept being stuck behind slower autonomous vehicles?

I don’t think so, at least in the near-term. Perhaps city and state governments could replace the HOV (carpool) lanes with autonomous vehicle lanes. But until they can go with the flow of traffic, driverless vehicles will have a hard time hitting the highways.

Also, autonomous vehicles will have to be legalized first, then made safe almost beyond measure before they are certified for highway driving. Ours is a litigious society, and it’s easy to imagine a company going out of business because of a fatality or two.

AV’s are in the testing stage at this  point. People think technology always moves forward, but sometimes it moves sideways for a while.

That is especially true where AI is concerned. AI gets a bad rap, because in every science fiction movie that features it, bad things happen. Remember 2001: A Space Odyssey? If H.A.L. 9000 is driving your vehicle, who knows what could happen?

But if a computer can calculate an almost infinite number of possible outcomes when faced with any untenable situation, plus react appropriately, who’s to say it isn’t a better way? This bodes well for the eventual adoption of autonomous highway driving.

Still, you have to be pretty trusting to give up total control of your vehicle. There’s a reason a lot of people would rather drive than fly. Like the need for speed, control may be innate, too.

My guess is that eventually, artificial intelligence will embrace the need for speed, too.    ■

If you have any questions or comments, please email me at [email protected].

To read more of Bob Ulrich's editorials, see:

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About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.