The 55 miles per hour speed limit came in to force in 1974, back when cars like the Jaguar E-Type and Plymouth Valiant Sedan roamed the Earth. Cars have got a whole lot better since then and they’re about to take the wheel.
So does this mean we can look forward to higher speed limits in an autonomous future? We think so.
Accident rate has gone up despite tech
Even though active and passive safety systems have got exponentially better in recent times, the accident and death rate is still going up. So, although some States have increased the speed limit, there’s a real ceiling when we have people at the wheel.
Every modern machine is a performance car compared to the Trans-Ams, Chevelles and 100bhp Pontiac Firebird you could seriously buy in 1974, but that’s a safety feature in itself.
Larger tires, better brakes, improved suspension and electronic traction control have made today’s 800bhp supercars a pussy cat in the right settings. All cars are better on the brakes thanks to the improved rubber and anti-lock systems and the back end stays in line even when the wheels start to slip.
And yet, we still we keep crashing. Fatalities even rose significantly in 2015, according to the NHTSA.
More traffic = more problems
Massive increases in the numbers of cars on the road have contributed to the slightly skewed stats. Since the 1960s, the Federal Highway Administration reckons that 3.69 million additional cars have hit the road each and every year.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics revealed that there were 254,639,386 vehicles registered for road use in 2012, which is more than the number of licensed drivers by a long way. They can’t be all out on the road at one time, then, but there’s no getting round the fact that traffic has increased and the average commuter wastes hours of their life sat in the car.
Fluid speed limits and algorithms, together with a tunnel system if Elon Musk gets his way, will help alleviate city center traffic. Those same fluid speed limits and total control of the cars could have a massive impact on traffic on the highway, too.
When the cars connect, traffic gets smoother
Right now, thousands of unconnected people are reacting to each others’ input and a driver slamming his brakes on can cause a build-up of traffic miles behind. So with that kind of input removed from the system, we should have a far more effective road network.
We have to factor in near intangibles like the human attention span, panic when things go sideways and human error that still causes 93% of accidents on the road, according to the NHTSA.
The simple fact is, though, that all the safety systems in the world aren’t bringing the death rate down. But could that be about to change? What happens if autonomous cars bring the accident rate tumbling to the floor? Could we raise the speed limits then?
Yes, is the simple answer. When road accidents have been reduced to negligible levels then we can experiment with higher speed limits.
First, we’ll have teething troubles
There is going to be a painful period of adjustment while self-driving cars mingle with older machines on the highway and city center.
The NHTSA has also highlighted a study by The Casualty Actuarial Facility that has suggested 49% of accidents have at least one factor that could effect the efficacy of the self-driving systems. But then it did endorse Elon Musk’s claim that Level 3 Autopilot has slashed incidents by 40%. So the potential for Level 4 and, critically, Level 5 when the people inside have no control, is mindboggling.
We can expect some issues along the way and don’t expect the speed limits to increase overnight. There are always growing pains with technology that has this profound an impact on our way of life. That’s the polite way of saying there will be crashes and people will lose their lives.
How will the cars cope with our driving?
The self-driving systems will run into their own glitches and encounter erratic behavior from other drivers. We have to wait and see how they’ll cope with sub-standard driving from the actual people in control of their cars. Computers might really not be ready for the chaos we can create behind the wheel.
Eventually, though, every car on the road should have full connectivity and a wealth of data to fine tune the systems. It will communicate with the stop signs, other cars in the vicinity and more to give the car a clearer picture of the road ahead than any human could possibly form.
Accidents will go down at some point
At that point, accidents should start to decrease on a year-by-year basis as the self-driving tech improves, the cars start to talk to each other through the Internet of Things and clumsy, avoidable accidents become a thing of the past.
Accidents will always happen, but the NHTSA recently credited Tesla’s imperfect Autopilot system with reducing accidents by 40%. It was a landmark moment and the first clear admission by the authorities that self-driving technology is cutting incidents and deaths. Now we just need to perfect the systems and road accidents could truly become a thing of the past.
Speed limits could become olde-world concepts
That’s the point we can look at speed limits on the grounds of safety as antiquated concepts. The computers can decide the optimum speed on various stretches to keep the traffic running smoothly and we’ll no longer have to worry about getting stopped and fined.
So in a fully automated world, where human error is taken out of the equation, we could have a near accident free road network that moves at the right speed for the conditions.
That’s the Utopian dream, in any case.
At that time we can raise the speed limits, or make them a fluid and smart response to immediate weather conditions and traffic ahead.
So once the self-driving EV has taken over the road, we could well see a fresh approach to the speed limits that mean you get to your destination faster, with less work, than ever before. And that has to be a good thing for us all.