Automated = Slow

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How fast will automated cars go? Will it take you longer – or less – to get where you want to go? The answer to those questions can be discovered by taking a ride on a city bus or any other government-run public conveyance

They all operate at Least Common Denominator Speed – which will be the defining parameter for automated vehicles. For the same reason that a government-run train (DC’s Metro, for instance) accelerates very gradually, so as not to upset the fearful, the old, small children. When it stops it does so in the same manner. Gradually, with great caution for the equilibrium of the average. It will sometimes just sit. For no apparent reason.

And then, you wait.

Other examples include elevators and escalators. Or commercial aviation, for that matter.  They could all go much faster in terms of the technology but don’t because they must accommodate the average person.

The below-average person.    

Automated cars will be programmed similarly. This is not hypothetical. They already are.

If you’ve had a chance to drive a new car equipped with automated technology such as Emergency Automated Braking or Lane Keep Assist you will have had a taste of The Future of Transportation. The possibility that it might become necessary to brake becomes the actuality of braking, every time – because computers are programmed and don’t do nuance.

The sensors detect an object in the vehicle’s intended path – such as a car up ahead that appears to be stopped  but is actually in the process of turning off. Computers – being programmed, reactive things – cannot intuit that the driver isn’t stopped in the middle of the road and that car will be out of your vehicle’s intended path by the time you get there.

Hence, no need to stab the brakes.

You wouldn’t. The computer will.    

These system do the same when they decide you’ve cut a pass too close. Or are trying to. It isn’t actually too close. It’s just too close for the embedded parameters that govern the system. Which – keep in mind – will be laid down according to the fiat of a programmer. Or more exactly, will be laid down according to the fiat of the same joy-sucking, initiative-stomping bureaucrats who currently posit absurdly low speed limits, prohibit perfectly safe U turns and rights-on-red.

Believe me. Hear me. I – in my role as a car journalist – have experienced this in multiple new cars saddled with bits and pieces of the all-controlling technology that is Our Future -unless we somehow put the kibosh on it.

Automated systems such as Emergency Automated Braking, Pedestrian Detection and Lane Keep Assist are programmed to over-react out of a super-abundance of Cloverian caution – not unlike your aging mother-in-law, who won’t even make a legal right on red unless there isn’t another car within a quarter-mile of hers and then only if pestered to make it . Who begins to slow down a quarter mile before she gets to her turn – and then practically stops in the middle of the road before actually making her turn.

Once all cars have this peremptorily programmed mother-in-law under the hood, the automated cars behind hers will also dutifully brake.

None would think of going around her – as you might, in your autonomous car – because automated cars don’t think and besides that would be illegal and the controlling intelligence is no longer yours but the embedded programming.

The automated car will not stray out of its lane, cross the double yellow to pass a herd of Lance Armstrong wannabees or come to a rolling stop at a vacant intersection, in order to avoid wasting time and fuel. All the foregoing would require situational judgment, the weighing of pros and cons – which the programming isn’t capable of exercising. If the automated car is confronted with a situation outside its parameters, it will simply stop. Like the automated Chevy Bolt GM rolled out in San Francisco last week. It encountered a double-parked taco truck, which flummoxed the automated know-it-all.

So it just parked itself.

The GM car still had a steering wheel and human-control could intervene. But what happens when the steering wheel and human control are taken out of the equation?

All automated cars will queue up at the same (slow) pace. None shall pass. Ever again.

The taco truck-bedazzled Bolt “never mov(ed) faster than 20 miles per hour . . . (and) reacted more conservatively than a human driver, for example slowing to a near-stop after sensing a bike approaching in the opposite lane.”

Punching the gas to blast past a road Clover could become as distant a memory as the catalytic converter test pipe.

Automation of cars will mean the end of ebb and flow. No room for the exercise of individual judgment. No going faster than the herd. No stepping out of the queue.

Once you’re in – you’re in. Like riding the Metro.

This idea that we’ll all be conveyed from A to B by a computerized Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is as preposterous as the idea of an efficient and speedy DMV. Everything the government does is necessarily one-size-fits all.

Being caged in an automated car will be like having to wait behind old people on escalators. The Automated cars of Our Future will have to function this way if only for liability reasons. You can’t hold the occupant of an automated car responsible for what the programming does. So the default program will be: Slow, overcautious, herd-like and – whenever a situation arises that requires a split second judgment call – it will be decided on hewing to the letter of the law, no matter how irrelevant to the actual situation; on the basis of risk-avoidance, no matter how remote or improbable.

The one comfort – if it is one – will be that you’ll be allowed to keep yourself perpetually distracted by watching videos on YouTube or gabbling on the phone.          

. . .

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Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia.


  1. We have “self driving cars” already. They’re called trains.
    That’s what these douches are actually talking about.
    Why would you bother buying a car if you were going to just sit in the thing like a heap of coal in a mine cart?
    This is another techno-grandiosity fantasy…

  2. Hollywood, the media, and advertisers brainwash Americans to be immoral, go on anti-depressants, get fat, take out student loans, go in debt, take out mortgages, get married, get divorced, go on welfare, support tyranny, and embrace wars, but maybe part of the reason the US is collapsing now is because these actions conflict with traditional American values of being moral, staying healthy, being responsible, being independent, loving freedom, and supporting peace.

    • Hi FS,

      Succinctly and well-said.

      And in re the original post: I don;t think it’s at all coincidental that passive, selfish driving correlates with all the things you mention.

  3. It’s a pretty safe bet that the ZILs and Chaikas of our Dear Leaders, as well as the Volgas of the apparatchiki and Stasi, will not be self-driving.

    For safety reasons, of course.

  4. My Tesla Autopilot does what you describe and slows way down for people making a right off the road using an abundance of caution.

    I am usually a fairly aggressive driver and slowpokes drive me nuts. But the interesting thing is that when the car drives itself, I stop caring about speed. I am far more relaxed and just listen to music instead of stressing about driving. Of course this doesn’t help the person that has to still drive manually behind automated cars.

    Automated cars will probably be slow at first, but with peer-to-peer car communication it is possible to go much faster on the freeway as well as surface streets. Instead of rubberneckers on the freeway, traffic could keep flowing. Eventually, you wouldn’t need traffic lights because the cars could coordinate traversing intersections without stopping.

    Here is a video of would could be possible:

    Your fear of lethargic automation is probably justified in the near term, but you should at least consider the potential positives in the interest of balance.

    • Hi Interferon,

      I see no positives at all because these things will be forced on us and that alone is sufficient objection. As someone who values personal independence and who despises being controlled, the idea of losing that independence and control is most unpleasant. Besides which I like to drive and am good at it. Being dumbed-down (and subjected to more dumbing down) because legions of Clovers don’t like to drive and can’t is infuriating.

      We’re becoming a nation of helpless, gadget-addled Eloi.

    • I care about speed almost always. I already get up at 5:30 am often. I’m not interested in getting up at 4 am so I can relax on my way to work. Same deal on my way home. I don’t want to watch TV while riding. I want to drive.

      In the “interest of balance”, I felt Eric was plenty easy on big brother in this article.

      I get so sick and tired of the “technology will save the world”, “technology will make everything better” lines. It’s only true if government doesn’t regulate and control said technology. When government is involved and they dictate who, what, where, and how with the technology, it’s not good. What about the time that will come where you can’t “opt out”? It will come because “we can’t have people doing whatever they want” because “safety”.

    • It would never be sped up. Why?

      Because many roads would still have pedestrians and bicycles on them (In fact they are pushing for more roads to have both pedestrians and bikers on them). This would be even when humans are banned from driving. Most shopping districts will probably have robot cars driving at under 5 miles per hour. For saaaaaaaffffffttttty (in Eric’s voice).

      The only roads free of both walking people and bicycles are interstate highways. A very small percentage of roads in the USA. They would have to ban walkers and bikers from more roads to increase speeds, and they won’t ever do that. They are doing the opposite in many cases. Like US 41 in my town. They put in SIDEWALKS (that very few use) on a very busy highway, directly next to the curb. Nobody in their right mind walks on those (plus they are covered in plowed snow in winter, and useless at night since there is no street-lighting). They should have been third lanes instead (what the majority at the “planning” meetings wanted).

      • richb,
        You wrote;
        ” They should have been third lanes instead (what the majority at the “planning” meetings wanted).”
        I guess “democracy” wasn’t in session at that meeting.

        • Nope, it had all been “decided” already by some guy with a urban planning degree. I don’t think a thing got changed. A business owner tried to block construction by getting his historic sign (which was in the way) listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It delayed it a year, but the sign got moved.

          The new highway is pretty much hated by everyone in town. It’s too busy during the day, and too dark at night. The town put in streetlights on the corners it controls but it needs full lighting. There was a fatal wreck a few weeks ago, due to it being too dark.

      • For my walk to a nearby restaurant they took out the parkway to make a turn lane. Now the sidewalk is right up against the road. I wonder how it will go this winter. The town does plow the sidewalk sometimes with some sort atv sized utility thing but I don’t think it can make it through piles of snow plowed from the street.

        New urbanists don’t want space for bicyclists and pedestrians. They want less space for general traffic and motorists. Their designs are often horrid for bicyclists and they’ll oppose solutions that are mutually beneficial to motorists and bicyclists. They’ll want and often get dedicated bicycle space that is horrid to use at anything approaching a decent bicycling speed. What good is a dedicated bicycle space if I have to drop from 17-25mph down to 8-12mph?

    • I saw the same thing that’s in the video live in Kathmandu and Hanoi, and they do that with human drivers.
      It’s true that robots can do things that humans can’t — build nanochips, for example. But I’m with Eric. If they can drive cars better than humans, we’ll make the switch voluntarily. Second best (or least worst) would be if all government-owned vehicles went first, then all private vehicles owned by government workers (all the way down to public preschool teachers), and only then the rest of us. But of course, as other commenters had noted, it will us first and the power elite not at all.

  5. I’m not sure the car can be programmed to leave (accelerate doesn’t work) a red light turned green slower than most drivers now. They ride your tail at 80 mph yet leave football fields at 0-20 mph.

    I live in the roundabout capital, Carmel, Indiana, so at least have much less red lights to worry about slow starters.

  6. Eric, you wrote “Least Common Denominator Speed”.

    I think what you mean is Slowest Common Denominator.

    It’s the same ideology that’s been employed at GovCo’s Minimum Security Indoctrination Centers, aka Public Schools, for years.

  7. I’m not too worried about self-driving cars. The data usd to operate them is just not up to snuff & too many people will protest. Take addresses for example. How many times has your GPS system goofed up on you? Consumers WON’T put up with it.
    What I see is a type of hybrid self-driving/human operated vehicle where a person can activate a self-driving mode, and turn it off at will.

  8. Too speculative. It is no longer the government vs schnooks (aka citizens), it will be government vs Alphabet (aka Google). Unlike you, I bet Alphabet gets the speed and traffic rules Alphabet likes. I would not be surprised if 25 years from now there are strictly enforced speed minimums, so the robots can move at optimum speeds. Waze in a case in point. I read an article that implied Waze had taken over the job of traffic direction from the Israeli government. One future people don’t seem to see is when large tech monopolies take over functions currently done by the gov. This is likely to happen as the government is not able to field software products.

    What Happens When Waze Becomes Israel’s Traffic Cop
    The navigation app can turn quiet, narrow streets into freeways, and prioritizes individual users over the common good
    read more:

  9. And for most of us, the self-driver won’t take the shortest route to your destination. It will instead make the milk run to pick up other citizens and maybe a package or two until there are enough aboard to make the trip profitable. And it might even herd you into a central hub where you’ll need to transfer to another vehicle. Like a tiny version of commercial air travel.

    This won’t be an issue for the rich people who are in favor of self-drivers. They will have their own private vehicle, which will probably be exempt from the raft of new rules, possibly because they will still be able to afford a human driver who can “take over” when necessary.

    • It would pick up others, not because of profit (because it will likely be government owned so they won’t give a cr*p about making money), but because of shortages. You really think they will have enough sharing cars at all times for all on demand? Not a chance.

      (I think even a pure market driven system would have shortage problems, its would be a huge task to administrate sharing cars.)

      They will have to ration car rides, no question. At some point you will have to say why you need to go somewhere, and many times they will say no.

  10. When getting onto a highway, if I see a long, clear space in the traffic ahead of me, and there is a crowd even with me and extending behind while I am on the ramp, the proper thing to do for safety is to punch the throttle to get into that big open space, ignoring speed laws. The least safe thing would be to keep the speed down and try to get into some small space between the cars that are already on the highway. I suspect that the automated car would do the more dangerous thing, keeping speed down to squeeze in, or even more stop like Eightsouthman said. There is no way these things can be a safe as a human with good judgement, who is willing to choose safety over legality.

  11. If the computer detects something close behind a computer driven car (such as a trailer you are towing) will it prevent you from backing up? On a multi lane highway will the slow computer guided cars spread out over all the lanes or will they all stay to the right? If they spread out, imagine the reactions of all the computer guided cars as we pass, weaving through traffic in our older cars. Will laws be passed preventing us from doing so?
    John D

  12. Can you imagine what these automated ox carts will be like in the winter? They’ll all be sideways in ditches because they hit the brakes on black ice or near the top of a steep hill because there was a stoplight or stop sign (because law!), or because the sensors got confused by snow, or ice, or rain, or bird droppings, or whatever. As a teen, I never had any idea Red Barchetta would be so prophetic.

  13. The car would also likely not be as safe as having me drive, because I doubt it would preemptively change lanes in anticipation of a developing situation. For example, when on a highway and approaching an on-ramp, when I see a car on the ramp and another car in the lane it will merge into, I either speed up or slow down to give that second car a space into which to merge out of his lane, thus avoiding potential problems. I don’t see the automated car doing that. I dodge many real situations, not just potential situations, by seeing just what is developing quickly. I don’t think the automated car would do that either. And I can’t imagine being stuck behind a big piece of farm equipment (about the only cause of a traffic jam in Osgood, Idaho. I blow past, punching the speed up fairly high sometimes, in a perfectly safe manner. In one of those cars, just wait, and wait, and wait…

    • The car will act like a Houston driver and come to a stop or close to it, especially if there are signs saying “Do Not Stop” on that entrance ramp. It will be run over by a big rig who’ll get the ticket, the bill and god only knows what else. BTDT too many times.

    • The claim is that the automated car will be safer because it will never make a mistake. This ignores the reality of driving. Driving is about anticipating and reacting. Computers aren’t so good at that. In Las Vegas, they put a self driving shuttle downtown. It doesn’t go over 15 mph. On the first day, it got into a fender bender. Of course, they claim that it was the fault of the other vehicle and technically that is true. But the real question for these self driving cars isn’t whether they are at fault in an accident, the real question is whether a human driver would have avoided the accident. In the Vegas shuttle case, a human driver would have easily avoided the accident. A truck backed into the shuttle and the self driving shuttle just stopped. A human driver would have backed up or swerved to avoid the truck. If you go out onto the road and you blindly follow all the “rules of the road” without anticipating and reacting, you will get into accidents far more often. They won’t technically be your fault because you follow all the rules but does that really matter?

      • You summed it up pretty well Krista. I couldn’t begin to say how many times avoidance of a collision has been a split second decision, based partially on experience and partially on that split calculation done involving the now situation and the experience.

        I couldn’t say how many times it appeared to be a toss-up between emergency braking and/or steering or maximum acceleration. Situations arise constantly that neither of these will work but it’s much better than a slow controlled stop dictated by a computer who has no real life experiences and is unable to “read” the speed of another vehicle, the yaw and momentum of another vehicle and another one, presumably the one the computer is driving.

        I was heading to a nearby town this morning and it was experience mainly that kept me from hitting deer being one of those mornings they’re all moving a lot.

        And it’s not as if driving skills by people are getting better either. More and more I find myself simply stopped and waiting for somebody in a 4 wheeler to make a decision. I often reach a point I refuse to move until they move and go on first. Does a computer make eye contact? Does it “read” what another driver might intend via eye contact?

        One thing doesn’t necessarily follow another, something the computer can’t know or have the ability to anticipate.

        An aside to this: This morning I read of a woman who became angry because of the speed a truck was traveling. Her answer finally came to her as she pulled alongside the truck and began swinging a ball bat at it. Seems counterproductive to most people but evidently not to her. Before it was over the cops were involved. They stopped her in her attempt to damage said truck and noticed her vanity plates that said “Peace 95” of which they inquired as to what that meant. She said she was trying to placate people as there was simply too much violence. You can’t make shit up like this.