Drivers v. Robots, Part 9: Speed Inflation

There are many dangerous transportation practices (or malpractices) which robots could help prevent or discourage. It is important to acknowledge when these deterrents are not employed. One failure is the refusal to control vehicle speed and the spacing between vehicles. Another is the socio-economic, institutional and/or political failure to employ a decades-old technology that would put a stop to this practice.

These practices have been compounded by other developments in recent years. During my decade in paratransit operations, my company deployed vans and minibuses: Relatively high centers-of-gravity and lots of surface area along the sides. As a formal contract provision, I refused to allow my drivers to travel above 45 mph on freeways. Last month, on the NJ Turnpike, I drove my low, sleek car a mere 70 mph in the middle lane. Feverishly optimizing my defensive-driving knowledge.  Entitled motorists sped past me on both sides, weaving in and out, constantly cutting in front of my car and fellow vehicles. (Had I driven more slowly, or in other lanes, the risks would have been worse.) I call the phenomenon at play here “speed inflation.” It evolved gradually over the past few decades in an environment of radical decreases in law enforcement.

Cockpit Companions 

I can often spot the worst approaching perpetrators in my rear view mirrors, In my less altruistic moments, I wish I had a tail-gunner. I suspect many bus and coach drivers feel the same. I almost always wish I had a human navigator with access to a map (on a screen or even on paper). In and near major cities, signage is a jumble of information: Freeways; connecting freeways later down the road; ramps and cross-streets; ramp exit speeds (rarely attainable); the “general” direction of the major thoroughfares (often misleading where the signage is positioned); and one or two major destinations somewhere down the line. 

Digital navigators often make errors or fail to provide the information needed quickly enough as the driver gets closer to the desired turn or lane change, particularly given the travel speeds involved. Navigators often cannot modify the information, increment by increment, as motorists must merge and weave into the safest lane for their next maneuver.  They certainly cannot coordinate it with the motorist’s thinking, particularly when much of it is improvised at the last possible moment. These problems are not the fault of digital navigators. Motorists are surrounded by entitled drivers merging and weaving at breakneck speeds, rarely signaling, and never penalized for any dangerous failures unless they actually collide with something. Their insurance almost never covers the carnage.

As the hierarchy of public transportation modes collapses, the winning monopoly will increasingly dominate the highways the byways with van- and minibus conversions. These dynamics will produce many safety benefits for buses, coaches and trucks with their significantly greater mass. Yet these larger vehicles have less maneuverability, require greater braking distance and experience longer reaction time (due to their pneumatic braking systems). So speed inflation creates a serious dilemma for buses, coaches and trucks whose drivers will increasingly face a choice between speeding, weaving and dodging. Defensive driving is far more challenging when surrounded by wanna-be blue-angels with marginal skills and no deterrence. 

Speed and Distance

Robots will mitigate some of these problems. Reaction time will largely disappear (see future installment titled, “Drivers v. Robots, Part 10: The Limits of Canned Choices”). But braking distance will not change noticeably. Current imbalances are dangerous: Trucks cannot stop as quickly as cars, despite scaled-up brake system components. Stretch limousines are often doubled in length (with significant increases in mass) while brake components (and requirements for them) remain unchanged. As any professional driver knows, unlike reaction time, braking distance is not linear: Traveling at 30 mph, a bus or coach over 10,000 lbs. GVWR can brake in roughly 70 feet. The same vehicle traveling 60 mph requires 280 feet (FMVSS #105). (The relationship for vehicles with hydraulic brakes is similar.) While not quite as severe, Today’s bus traveling 80 mph may whiz by yesteryear’s 55 mph bus 45 percent faster. But it takes three to four times more distance to stop. (It is hard to be more precise; Tables in FMVSS #105 do not go up to 80 mph.) 

This is not even the worst part. Because impact forces are sloppily proportional to the inverse of the masses of respective vehicles, a bus, coach or truck can verily wipe the poor car it rear ends off the road. But seated up front, the bus, coach or truck driver will not usually escape a serious injury: Because the brakes of larger vehicles are not scaled up enough, the “closing speed” of impacts is likely to be significant, and even the heavy vehicle’s driver will likely suffer. The motorist and passengers in front can become cinders or discs. The rear-seated passenger in one lawsuit I served on was incinerated. In another one, world-class surgeons actually reconstructed the rear-seated passenger’s head from its post-incident pie shape – although this surgery did little for her brain. 

Then there is the wind. With its relative low center-of-gravity, it may be less-challenging to operate an 18-wheeler tank truck filled to capacity at high speeds. The same is not true for an empty box car traveling at the same speeds. Worse still for a double-decker bus (much less a dangerous conversion built on a high-floor bus chassis). Rounding a curve at high speeds, on a wet roadway, in high winds is begging for trouble – even with perfectly-inflated brand-new tires, and where the curves are properly banked.  

Engineering and Economics

Engineers may quibble about the specifics. Technology has surely helped, from independent suspension systems and improved tires to enhanced diagnostics and ABS brakes. But no technology has come close to compensating for speed inflation. Speed inflation is not an engineering failure. It is an enforcement failure. It represents an impunity in vehicle operations that would have been unthinkable when construction on most of our highways began. It represents a colossal failure of society to keep pace with the technology it has unleashed. The false promises  of robots have done little to decrease these risk. Instead, a range of tangential improvements from enhanced engine performance and more-durable pavement composition to steeper banking and improved illumination have only encouraged speed inflation. 

The greatest failure of public responsibility for the consequences of these trends has come in the arena of public funding. Our World-class drones can pluck the pedestrians-of-choice off their front porches, find them inside tents and rabbit holes, and nail them as they exit their camouflaged vehicles and safe-houses. Moments before, we can catch them smiling, frowning, laughing or sneezing. Facial recognition is everywhere, and scores or hundreds of technologies track our every movement and communication, and extrapolate our thoughts. Yet we do not remove our own homicidal motorists from the freeways when, semi-car-lengths apart, they weave through enclaves of speeding fellow-motorists at intervals which would challenge genuine Blue Angel pilots. Junior high school hobbyists can buy technologies with such detection capabilities in the toy departments of big box stores. Yet we do not support their use to deter mayhem on our roadways.

The Lull of the Apathy and the Boredom of the Chase

One also cannot excuse this disinterest in law enforcement  as a risk to the enforcers. Even before the advent of drones, older readers likely recall the hours-long, low-speed chase where throngs of bystanders cheered on the passing phalanx of police cars trailing the famous white SUV ferrying O.J. Simpson back home as it lumbered along L.A. County’s I-10 Freeway at 45 mph. He was apprehended only as the vehicle pulled to a stop in his suburban driveway. With drones, all one need do is have its robots forward a citation to the offender’s email box. The perp would not escape accountability because, “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” The prosecution simply needs some cheap, irrefutable proof of reckless driving. Processing such evidence requires neither a cop nor a judge. Nor even a photographer. With a cheap drone with a video camera and an email transmission, all that would be needed is the perp’s cellphone and a credit card number or bank account – all of which a snapshot of the vehicle-in-question could provide in a nanosecond. No humans needed. 

Robots and Nobots

Out-of-control motoring behavior is not due to a lack of technology. Our use (or misuse) of technology reflects a will to employ robots to eliminate jobs and redistribute wealth.  It does not reflect a will to keep us safe on the roadways.

Recent years have led to increased debates about truth. One may debate whether or not all men are created equal, or whether or not we have unalienable rights. But if freeway travelers are allowed to weave in an out of lanes at 80 and 90 mph unchecked,  what does a speed limit really mean? Is it a suggestion? A concept? An illusion? A hope? A wish? An anachronism? A ploy? A ruse? It is clearly not a limit in any meaningful sense of the word.

In a society increasingly dominated by monopolies, where competition through product improvement has been replaced by disruption, many are confused and frustrated by the dwindling beneficiaries of capitalism. Others appear delighted by it. Regardless, in every arena from politics to manufacturing to sales, we find that laws and regulations have little meaning or value apart from their enforcement.  Speed inflation is a salient example that encompasses multiple facets of this expanding reality.  

These conundrums are not abstract constitutional issues. Lives depend on addressing them responsibly. Saving lives does not appear to provide many incentives. But for National Bus Trader readers, one may add that the survival and prosperity of the public transportation industry depends on the resolution of these issues. Not long ago, the industry faced down a quintupling of insurance premiums. Unless plaintiffs’ attorneys become even cheaper and lazier than many or most already are, this postponement will not last much longer. Serving as an expert witness on both sides of the table in catastrophic bus and coach accidents, I may be oversensitive to these dynamics. But I am not imagining them.

Motorcoach professionals well know that news of catastrophic accidents receive considerable over-exposure. Even when the lawsuits are adjudicated accurately, the parties at fault may not be known for years, and the most superficial of facts are quickly forgotten by the vast majority of the motoring public first learning of them. But the vague memory of bus and coach safety deficiencies linger. And it is refreshed by every new episode.

As professionals, we cannot lose control over the conditions of our roadways. Such things are not none of our business They are our very business. Without some genuine progress, it may not be a business much longer. 

Sometimes robots are the problem. Sometimes they are the solution. If we leave the decision to the bots, the non-bots will increasingly pay the freight.  And if we leave the decision to the bots, they will make them. 

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