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Europe set to impose mandatory speed-limiting technology in cars

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Image by Frerk Meyer, via Creative Commons.

If you were taken aback by the story a few weeks ago that Volvo was going to limit the speed of all of its cars worldwide to a 112-mph maximum in the name of safety, may we suggest you buckle up for this tidbit of news: The European Union’s governing body has advanced legislation that will require mandatory speed-limiting devices in all motor vehicles beginning in 2022. The proposed law covers cars, vans, tractor trailers, and buses, and also includes other motor-vehicle-related safety measures.

Called “Intelligent Speed Assist,” the system uses a combination of GPS, a built-in camera to read speed-limit signs, and the car’s other on-board electronics to keep a vehicle within the posted speed limit. The BBC’s report on the not-yet-finalized legislation carries a bit more detail into how the system works. Lest you think all is lost, the system does allow for temporary override by the driver, simply by pushing on the accelerator, such as in a passing situation, or via a switch that must be activated each time a driver gets into his car. But earlier versions of the legislation did not include the ability for a driver to override the system.

ISA is just part of the sweeping legislation that will attempt to use available and developing technologies to reduce road deaths in the E.U. to zero by 2050. Other mandatory features on new vehicles will include automated emergency braking that is supposed to intervene when detecting a pedestrian or cyclist in the car’s path and electronic data recorders that will store a vehicle’s data in the seconds leading up to a crash, a veritable “black box” for automobiles. Automakers will also be required to have their cars ready to be fitted with some type of alcohol interlock device intended to prevent convicted drunk drivers from repeating their offenses. Systems to mitigate drowsy or distracted driving, backup cameras, and lane-keeping tech are all part of the proposals.

While automated emergency braking and “black box” data recorders are not mandatory in the U.S., both technologies have made significant inroads in the market in recent years. Automated braking is usually heavily advertised as a safety feature, while any mention of the data recording is usually limited to the fine print in the often unread owner’s manual. Still, a few years back, the majority of manufacturers selling cars in the U.S., and said to represent more than 99 percent of the market, agreed to implement automated braking by 2022 as well. The automakers worked with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — a federal agency — and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a private organization representing insurers, though this initiative is not a mandatory requirement as it will be in Europe.

Requirements exist for big rigs built since 1992 to have speed “governors,” but regulations do not require their use, though some fleets do insist in its use, for both safety liability and efficiency. Most of Europe, Australia, Japan, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec do require its use. NHTSA previously indicated it would make a ruling on automated emergency braking regulations for trucks in the U.S. in the fall of 2018, but instead reopened the debate with an additional period of investigation. With AEB designed to limit or avoid the impact entirely of frontal crashes, the numbers — 4,761 deaths related to truck crashes in 2017 — indicate there is vast room for improvement in this area.

Plenty of cars sold in the U.S., for several decades now, have built-in speed-limiting devices. These limits might be set for the types of tires used on a car, or even part of an industry agreement, such as that between BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz that set a 250-Kmph (155-mph) limit on their cars in the late 1980s. Japan’s auto manufacturers have had a 180-Kmph (112-mph) limit for domestic-market cars for decades. But none of these self-imposed limits (all of which have long been flouted or entirely dropped) is anywhere close to restricting vehicles to the actual, posted speed limits (the unlimited sections of Germany’s fame Autobahn notwithstanding) that this new legislation hopes to directly impose on drivers and their cars.

This European legislation is not law yet, however, as neither the European Parliament nor its members states have yet voted on it. The European Commission, the E.U.’s body that investigates and proposes legislation before it is presented to the parliament, conducted research and met with various groups in the previous year before hammering out the draft legislation — which, it must be noted again, can still be changed before it becomes law. Those groups included member-country transportation bodies, among others. With conference names like “Stakeholder Conference concerning the study on the evaluation of Directive 92/6/EEC on the installation and use of speed limitation devices,”  it’s no wonder it has not previously made headlines in the general media.

The Associated Press reported that, while Europe’s automakers — via its trade association — welcome the initiative, they also believe that the E.U. needs to do its part in upgrading road infrastructure and better driver training. The group had also previously warned that old maps and poor signage would leave gaps in the system. They are also in the business of marketing flashy, fast, and powerful cars, so we suspect their embrace might be more lip service to not offend such a governing body that can place far stricter controls on their business if so desired.

Automated safety features, autonomous vehicles, and other new technologies, such as electric drivetrains, are transforming the industry in ways unimaginable a generation ago, particularly as technologies once considered science fiction have trickled down to even entry-level cars. As technology continues to invade the driver’s space (both voluntarily and otherwise), systems, drivers, and laws are also adapting.

Lest you think that Britons had made a wise move to avoid such regulations via Brexit, guess again. The U.K.’s Department of Transport has indicated that the system will apply in Great Britain as well, despite the nation’s vote to leave the European Union.

Volvo’s announcement that its speed limit technology would apply to all cars it makes, including those sold in the U.S., seems a pre-emptive strike at upping the safety ante from a company that has built a reputation on the concern for the wellbeing its customers. But, with the massive economies of scale that automakers are always looking for, it’s entirely possible that cars equipped with the ISA technology may be sold in the U.S., either in an active or inactive state. Surely, the technology is already available on many U.S.-market cars; it’s just not all tied together yet — and not many voices are proposing it here.