No Speed Limit Autobahn and AI Autonomous Cars


By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider

The joys of driving on the German autobahn!

Nearly two-thirds of the 8,100 miles of the 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.

At first, I was quite excited about being able to drive at blazing speeds. Having come from the United States for my yearlong visit to Germany, I was well acquainted with the fact that mighty speeds were pretty much verboten in my home country. Sure, I had occasionally had a lead foot as I drove from Southern California to the Las Vegas strip in Nevada, everyone drives fast through the desert areas that are merely an impediment to getting to the tables in Vegas and laying out some bets. But this over-the-top speeding came with the chance that you would get stopped by the police and it was as much a bet to get a ticket and a hefty speeding fine as were the odds of losing your savings while gambling in Vegas.

Believe it or not, I gradually kind of got used to the fast driving of the autobahn. Interestingly, I also discovered that I had my own threshold of how fast I was willing to go. I also discovered that there seems to always be someone wanting to go faster than you, no matter how fast you might think you are going. I would shake my head in disdain at cars that came up to my bumper, while each of us were both driving already at hyper speeds, and dutifully would try to get out of their way. It was surprising to see them scoot away from me and zoom ahead, given that I was already going at such a high speed, and I tried to guess how much faster they must be going to be such a blur.

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. You dare not try to take away their unrestricted speed. You would need to pry their dead cold hands from their steering wheel to try and do so, which I mention as a kind of nod to how some Americans perceive their rights related to guns.

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. The car will react instantaneously and the human driver might not be able to react as quickly, thus, any roadway imperfections can have a rather daunting result.

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. A series of cars piling up can happen readily. The closest I’ve experienced in the United States has involved cars driving in the fog that cascade into each other when a car accident happens, and also sometimes I’ve seen the same happen when there is ice or snow on the roadways.

My colleagues and friends there in Germany emphasized to me that it was the responsibility of each driver to get out of the roadway as quickly as possible whenever having any car troubles. I recall one time that I was driving on the autobahn and had a colleague with me, and I saw dark smoke billowing up ahead. I started to slow down. My colleague looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked why I was slowing down. I told him that I wanted to be careful as we approached seemingly an adverse car accident up ahead (I assumed a car was likely on fire after a car crash of some kind).

He got irritated at me and insisted I proceed along at full speed. Why, I asked him? He assured me that the German driver that was up ahead would certainly get out of the way, as prescribed by law and by the accepted credo of drivers there. If I slowed down it would only likely cause me to get into a car accident because some other car from behind me would get confused about why I was slowing down. I admit this logic was a bit beyond my usual way of thinking and I wondered whether an injured or possibly dead driver in the perhaps car accident up ahead would really have been able to get off the road or not.

In any case, I did survive the autobahn experience while in Germany for the year and both enjoyed driving on the infamous autobahn and at times had some trepidations about it. One of those love-hate relationships, I suppose.

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. It is there, it exists, it works, and they are happy with it.

They did point out that it acts as a tourist attraction. I am used to places like Disneyland in Southern California as being a tourist attraction, or perhaps Hollywood where you can see the movie stars. Thinking of the autobahn as a tourist destination was intriguing. I did meet a number of tourists that told me they might have not otherwise come to visit Germany except that they especially wanted to drive all out on the autobahn.

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. In that sense, you could say that the autobahn is intricately bound into the German economy. Car production and the selling of German cars might not do well if the autobahn did not have the unrestricted speed limit and the available branding that goes with it.

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).

The debate is focused on pollution, rather than car safety aspects per se.

Turns out that the cars zooming along on the autobahn are pouring out carbon emissions. This butts up against the German led efforts to fight pollution and also their desire to be a leader in the climate change arena. The German Federal Environment Agency has suggested that by setting the speed limit to 75 miles per hour, the result could known down carbon emissions by cars on the autobahn, decreasing the foul output by perhaps 9% per year. Generally, the floated speed limit number is around 75 to 80 miles per hour.

Geschwindigkeitsbeschränkung! That’s the lengthy German word meaning maximum speed limit. It’s a word that for some Germans is a foul one, at least with respect to the autobahn. As mentioned earlier, the unrestricted speed is a key source of pride, it attracts tourists, it ties into the economy, it has merged into the culture and mindset of the people, and so anyone trying to mess with it is going to find themselves confronting quite a fierce resistance.

Some of my friends and colleagues felt that driving at 75 or 80 miles per hour is a type of insult. It is beneath anyone of proper driving ability. It also underuses the capability of the car. Why would you have a finely made precision car that can go much faster and yet limit it to being no more than a slowpoke on the roadways? They are sympathetic to the noxious emissions factor and regret that pollution is a byproduct, but they are not convinced that the speed limit imposition is the means to deal with the problem.

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 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 the design of Level 5 self-driving cars, the auto makers are even removing the gas pedal, brake pedal, and steering wheel, since those are contraptions used by human drivers. The Level 5 self-driving car is not being driven by a human and nor is there an expectation that a human driver will be present in the self-driving car. It’s all on the shoulders of the AI to drive the car.

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. In spite of this co-sharing, the human is supposed to remain fully immersed into the driving task and be ready at all times to perform the driving task. I’ve repeatedly warned about the dangers of this co-sharing arrangement and predicted it will produce many untoward results.

For my overall framework about AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For the levels of self-driving cars, see my article:

For why AI Level 5 self-driving cars are like a moonshot, see my article:

For the dangers of co-sharing the driving task, see my article:

Let’s focus herein on the true Level 5 self-driving car. Much of the comments apply to the less than Level 5 self-driving cars too, but the fully autonomous AI self-driving car will receive the most attention in this discussion.

Here’s the usual steps involved in the AI driving task:

  •         Sensor data collection and interpretation
  •         Sensor fusion
  •         Virtual world model updating
  •         AI action planning
  •         Car controls command issuance

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. There are some pundits of AI self-driving cars that continually refer to a utopian world in which there are only AI self-driving cars on the public roads. Currently there are about 250+ million conventional cars in the United States alone, and those cars are not going to magically disappear or become true Level 5 AI self-driving cars overnight.

Indeed, the use of human driven cars will last for many years, likely many decades, and the advent of AI self-driving cars will occur while there are still human driven cars on the roads. This is a crucial point since this means that the AI of self-driving cars needs to be able to contend with not just other AI self-driving cars, but also contend with human driven cars. It is easy to envision a simplistic and rather unrealistic world in which all AI self-driving cars are politely interacting with each other and being civil about roadway interactions. That’s not what is going to be happening for the foreseeable future. AI self-driving cars and human driven cars will need to be able to cope with each other.

For my article about the grand convergence that has led us to this moment in time, see:

See my article about the ethical dilemmas facing AI self-driving cars:

For potential regulations about AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For my predictions about AI self-driving cars for the 2020s, 2030s, and 2040s, see my article:

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.

For more about EV’s and AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For why retrofitting existing cars to be AI self-driving cars is unlikely, see my article:

For my article about the affordability of AI self-driving cars, see:

For my article aspects about mass transit and AI self-driving cars, see:

For the timetable of AI self-driving cars, see my predictions:

Carbon Emissions Considerations

The key point is that if we are going toward AI self-driving cars, eventually, inexorably, and if those AI self-driving cars are mainly EV’s, it would seem to “solve” the autobahn qualm about the carbon emissions.

For Germany, they are faced with having to ascertain whether they believe that AI self-driving cars are coming or not, and if so, and assuming the use of EV’s will then predominate, they could wait out the existing carbon emissions issue and be able to assuage it during the switchover to AI self-driving cars.

The question then becomes how much pollution they could have otherwise reduced in the interim by setting speed limits and does that amount of emissions reduction “payoff” for the consternation of restricting the speed limits of the autobahn until the arrival of AI self-driving cars.

Notice that this is a different approach to the matter. For most debates, the usual argument is to permanently set speed limits. In the case of this alternative argument, the question becomes the interim period rather than a forever kind of timeline.

For those that are pressing for the carbon emissions reduction, any furtherance of emissions is bad, and so they would say that the speed limit restrictions could be temporary, and this should satisfy the “no speed limits” proponents. Those proponents just need to keep their eye on the emergence of AI self-driving cars and once that happens, presumably the speed limit goes back to unrestricted.

For those that are vocal about keeping unrestricted speed limits, they would say that the lack of a speed limit should continue unabated and that the emissions contingent just needs to wait for the advent of AI self-driving cars. The problem of foul emissions, in a manner of thinking, will be going to solve itself, doing so without having to mess with the existing approaches such as speed limit aspects.

Get out your crystal ball because the interim period could either be short or long, depending upon how fast or slow you see the emergence of AI self-driving cars.

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.

For my article about productivity in AI self-driving cars, see:

For my refuting that AI self-driving cars will be a commodity, see my article:

For safety aspects of AI self-driving cars, see my article:

For my article about the driving controls debates, see:

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.

For my article about zero fatalities as zero chance, see:

For the dangers of road rage, see my article:

For my article about human driving foibles, see:

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.

It is hard to imagine that a human driver can drive as safely as a true Level 5 AI self-driving car that also has the added edge of using V2V and V2I. Of course, this notion of the true Level 5 AI self-driving car is only a notion right now, likewise the use of V2V and V2I on any scale is also only a notion. In that sense, this is all speculation about how AI self-driving cars will play out.

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.

It isn’t going to be something that occurs by happenstance, and nor would any of us want to have AI self-driving cars zipping along on the autobahn that we didn’t believe could cope with the car speeds.

For my article about cognition timing of AI self-driving cars, see:

For my article about dealing with speed limits, see:

For the use of swarm intelligence, see my article:

For the need of the AI to be a defensive driver, see my article:

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.

Back to the debate about the presumed interim period of dealing with the carbon emissions, some worry that if a so-called temporary imposition of speed limits on the autobahn is put in place, this won’t be perhaps so temporary. It could be that once the speed limits are enacted, and even if AI self-driving cars arrive and are fine to drive at unrestricted speeds, those have that put the speed limits in place will insist to stick with the speed limits as so established.

Why would the speed limits potentially stay in place? One aspect is that even though AI self-driving cars are presumably going to be safer drivers than human drivers, I’ve pointed out that nonetheless there are still going to be some amount of car related crashes and human injuries or deaths associated with those car crashes.

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?

For driving and tit-for-tat aspects, see my article:

For the use of edge computing, see my article:

For my article about the potential of bugs or ghosts in AI systems, see:

For ethics aspects to be considered, seem my article:


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.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Lance Eliot

This content is originally posted on AI Trends.