Of Bimmers and Ferraris, Vipers and … ITS!

Although the action takes place in the spring of '96 on the Munich-Vienna autobahn this story starts in the Frankfurt airport. In place of the bottom-of-the-line econobox I had reserved for six weeks, the rental-car company handed me the keys to a brand-new, mid-range Opel. There were only 12 kilometers showing on the odometer!

Although I was never going to see the car again I couldn’t bring myself to ignore the proper ‘break-in’ and run for hours at normal ‘left-lane’ autobahn speeds. So I spent most of the first 1000km weaving in and out among the trucks in the right lane. (Which, as it turns out, is a very good way to save yourself from the AMP syndrome … and this was several months before I discovered just how deadly it can be.)

This worked well as I made my way down to the Munich area for a brief stopover at my sister-in-laws home. But, on a sunny, Sunday afternoon a few days later as I headed for Vienna there were, of course, no trucks and relatively light traffic on the 3-lane autobahn. With my self-imposed 120km/h I had the right lane all to myself!

With nothing better to do I found myself drinking in the magnificent Alpine vistas while listening to a radio program of opera/choral music. Since the main objective of the trip was to gather material for articles in automotive magazines I was using a mini-cassette recorder to dictate thoughts and impressions as I drove along. On that afternoon one of the recorded notes was, "The human voice is the original, and the ultimate, musical instrument. All the others are but poor imitations." [Six weeks later I would travel to Prague for FISITA’96 and, at the exact moment that I am writing these lines in my home in Ottawa, CBC radio is playing Smetana’s The Moldau!]

On one of my sporadic ‘traffic checks’ I was pulled out of the pleasant reverie by the sight of a red dot in my left-side mirror which was getting bigger, fast! My first thought was, "Wonderful! It has been a very long time since I’ve seen a Ferrari being driven the way a Ferrari was meant to be driven!" Then, as it flew by at over twice my ‘self-imposed 120km/h’, I could see that it wasn’t a Ferrari! It was a Dodge Viper!

Suddenly the Viper’s brake lights came on. And hard! And long! I can still see it today. Tail in the air, nose practically on the ground, he was scrubbing off three times the kinetic energy of my 120km/hr Opel just to get down to my speed. [Kinetic energy is a function of the square of the speed, twice the speed equals four times the energy.] And for no reason!! I could see nothing ahead, no traffic, no curve, no roadway repairs, nothing which might have caused such a dramatic speed reduction.

The mystery only deepened when a BMW, which I had noticed chasing the ‘Ferrari’, slowed just as suddenly and pulled in behind me. So there we were. Viper, Opel, Bimmer toddling along at 120 on a sunny Sunday afternoon. For no reason! (Well. I knew why I was going so slowly.)

And then I saw it.

An aluminum superstructure. Across all three lanes. And with a big electronic sign over each lane. All reading 120, 120, 120. Aha! Mystery solved! I must have missed the first one. So we toddled along together, through a few picturesque, downhill curves and my mind drifted back to the opera and the Alps.

BRRAAP! The Bimmer roared past! By the time I had gotten back down from the musical philosophizing in Alpine meadows the Viper was long gone. Curious. And, again, for no reason! … And then I saw the next set of electronic signs … all blank! The speed limit was back up to … well, unlimited! At that point I resolved, "When I get back from Vienna I’m gonna find me the bureaucrat who put those signs up!"

On my return my brother-in-law was able to get me in touch with the right office in the Bavarian state government and I was invited in to discuss those signs. It turns out they are measuring traffic volume, precipitation and a couple of other things, even sight distance, and dumping it all into a computer and out comes … a legally enforceable speed limit. More important, it is a ‘dynamic’ speed limit, one that is time, place and weather specific!

Moreover this was not the first autobahn section with electronically variable speed limits. Several others were already in place in the ‘black spots’ for accidents in the neighbourhood of large cities and/or in areas where local weather, topography and traffic combine sporadically in a dangerous mix. And the benefit/cost ratio is huge! Early data indicate a three-year payback on construction costs.

Now there is an Intelligent Transportation System!

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The attached anecdote ... is a good example on several levels of the main themes coming out of our discussions over the past few months.

1. At 240+ the drivers of the Bimmer and 'Ferrari' were paying attention to their driving; at 120 I was not.

2. My distractions were both outside (the picturesque Alps) and inside (radio, mini-cassette recorder) the car.

3. The 'inside' distractions were of both the physical (short-term - fiddling with radio and recorder) and, vastly more dangerous, mental types (longer term - musical philosophizing, planning magazine articles [that said articles would deal with traffic safety made it in no way less dangerous!]).

4. An early, but very effective, ITS infrastructure was there to bring both slow and fast drivers to an appropriate speed FOR THE PARTICULAR 7-DIMENSIONAL SITUATION in which they were located.

5. The early ITS, using only visual clues from outside the car, did not immediately get my attention (perhaps I missed it while doing the traffic check which detected the red dot in the mirror?). There is thus a strong probability that the 'next-generation' ITS, using audio communication inside the car (whether based on GPS or local radio transmission), might have more effectively brought me back from those attractive Alpine meadows.

I believe it is much more credible to use a true personal anecdote, such as this, rather than a fictional one, contrived to fit all of our points. And if one of our critics doubts the veracity I'm sure I could find the original transcript of my recorded notes somewhere in my files.