Do Self-Driving Cars Make Speed Limits Obsolete?


It's a question without a definitive answer just yet, but if the super-nerds at Google are to be trusted, we may soon be better off without speed limits.

This week Reuters took a ride in one of the Internet giant's hands-free whips, and talked to some researchers:

There wasn't any speeding even though, ironically, Google's engineers have determined that speeding actually is safer than going the speed limit in some circumstances.

"Thousands and thousands of people are killed in car accidents every year," said Dmitri Dolgov, the project's boyish Russian-born lead software engineer, who now is a U.S. citizen, describing his sense of mission. "This could change that." …

Google's driverless car is programmed to stay within the speed limit, mostly. Research shows that sticking to the speed limit when other cars are going much faster actually can be dangerous, Dolgov says, so its autonomous car can go up to 10 mph above the speed limit when traffic conditions warrant.

So, when do we start uprooting those black-and-white signs and let our hair fly free in the autonomous automobiles? That isn't certain yet, either. Although Google cars, according to the BBC, "have travelled on more than 700,000 miles of open road," and the company unveiled a pedal-free, steering-wheel-free vehicle in May, there is no release date yet.

Although speed limits seem like common sense, this eventual proliferation of safe, self-driving cars could prove them to be just another outdated regulation. Since technology changes and improves at such a rapid pace, laws trying to regulate it are often obsolete by the time the ink dries. Even if they were well-intentioned, they end up acting like an anchor on further improvements and can even become dangerous impediments.

Countless reports have documented that red light and speed cameras are counterproductive, making roads more dangerous.

The same goes for cellphone and texting bans, which have demonstrated themselves to be either ineffective or outright counterproductive.

The less the better works on larger scales, too. In the last few years, several towns in Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K. have done away with just about everything – traffic lights, bike lanes, stop signs, sidewalks – and the results are good. Having in a sense deregulated the roads, people have become more attentive, fatalities declined, and congestion has been dramatically reduced

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  1. Google's driverless car is programmed to stay within the speed limit, mostly.

    And it can no doubt be programmed to exceed the speed limit. When it gets pulled over I wouldn't want to be the driver of that driverless car.

    1. Yell "It's Siri's fault!", throw your iPhone as far as you can and tell the officer "Hurry, she's getting away!"

      1. Reach for your iPhone to throw it? Are you kidding me? You think I want to get shot?

  2. Even if they were well-intentioned, they end up acting like an anchor on further improvements and can even become dangerous impediments.

    Say it ain't so!

    1. But... but... but... intentions!!

  3. Is that foot powered?

  4. If driverless cars are to be programmed to drive a specific speed then speed limits will still exist.

    And You Know Who Else built roads without speed limits?

    1. The Autobahn predated the Nazis.

      1. Yes but very little work was done before they took over.

    2. Soamlia?

      Oh, dammit, I forgot. There are no roads in Somalia.

  5. No because drunk driving.

    1. One more point in favor of driverless cars.

  6. It will take a long to replace the 253 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads with an average age of 11.4 years.

    Especially since Self-Driving cars are not actually for sale yet, have only been tested in limited conditions, and still have to overcome significant technical challenges.

    There will certainly be a lot of benefits. I remember my father telling me about getting drunk, crawling in the back of his wagon, passing out, and waking up in the morning after the horse took him home. I would love a car that could do that. Or one that could drop me off, go find a parking spot on its own, and come back when I called it.

    1. I'm expecting to see driverless lanes, similar to HOV lanes, to segregate them until people become more comfortable with the idea. How that will work in densely populated areas, I don't know. It will take time to work itself out, even if you make the unrealistic assumption that regulations won't come along to screw everything up.

  7. "Thousands and thousands of people are killed in car accidents every year," said Dmitri Dolgov


    the company unveiled a pedal-free, steering-wheel-free vehicle in May

    Yeah, no. I'm a programmer. Not going near anything without a manual override.

    1. At the very least, it needs a manual override for parking anywhere without clear spaces marked.

    2. 35,000 traffic fatalities in just the USA in 2013, or about 100 per day, or a 9/11 every month. Yet if 3 planes crash in the same year people freak out about air travel.

      Government roads are the biggest hazard most of us face, until we get older and our own diets do us in.


    1. Well of *course* the robot supports the driverless cars...

  9. But once the machines take over do you think they will want stinky humans inside them? No, people will be banned from the roads by the new machine overlords and forced to walk on muddy paths.

    1. with no shoes. uphill both ways.

    2. Once the Google driverless cars connect to the Internet, Skynet can use them to deliver all the supplies it needs.

  10. Driverless cars won't make speed limits obsolete. It will make them hardwired into the cars. Duh.

    1. Any feature, either on the car or in law, that would make it easier for automobiles to deprive states and municipalities of their speeding-ticket bux is not going to make it to the end. That means automatic governors are out (or will at least be fought tooth and nail), and speed limits will remain for years and years.

      I don't know how they'll justify it or how many years it will take for the fiefdoms to finally die, but there are too many towns that are financed by speed traps and too many police officers who pay for their salaries by handing out tickets for this massive "revenue" stream to just dry up because the self-driving car slavishly obeys speed limits.

  11. The authoritarians can't stand it that we libertarians are right about ROADZ!

  12. "Take me to Dunkin' Donuts, Hal."

    "I'm afraid I can't do that, Dave. The health insurance mainframe and I have been talking about your high cholesterol levels and think it would be better if you skipped the donuts going forward."

    "Alright, FINE. Take me to the liquor store."

    "I'm afraid I can't do that either, Dave."

    "OK, OK. Let's go to Radio Shack, I need some wire cutters..."

    "I'm sorry Dave, but..."

    "yea, yea yea. It's a joke. OK, where can you take me?"

    "You sound really worked up. Perhaps I should take you to the drug store so you can get a stress pill."

  13. Speed limits have never made sense. They were one of that "let's make bad new thing illegal TWICE" impulse that first became so popular in the first progressive era.

    1. Around where I live, several roads have been upgraded in the last 10-15 years, from 2 lanes to 4 (or 6) lanes with a wide raised median. In every single case the speed limits remained exactly the same. Apparently having multiple lanes in each direction and a big wide grassy median with turn lanes is safer, but not enough safer to allow you to drive any faster than before.

  14. How will the police/government make money off of self-driving cars??

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