AUTOWEEK ASKS: SHOULD CARS HAVE AUTOMATIC SPEED LIMITERS?

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Road sign recognition and GPS tech could bring automatic speed control to Europe

A couple of weeks ago, Volvo announced it was finally going to do something about the apparently rampant problem of Volvo owners driving their cars at speeds above 100 mph by instituting a 112 mph limit on all its cars starting in 2020. We can all sleep better knowing the days of being passed by a Volvo 960 wagon doing a buck twenty on the interstate are nearly over.

Jokes aside, there are some good arguments for electronic speed limiters in cars and trucks. Most of the German automakers cap the top speeds at 155 mph, especially in big, cube-shaped SUVs that have no business moving at warp 9 on the autobahn. This has only become a problem in Germany in the past 20 years, as the German horsepower wars and the emergence of utilities have created the potential for instability at absurdly high speeds. But other cars, including various sedans and coupes, usually aren’t held to the 155 mph standard if they can handle it. Those speeds are kind of an important part of driving a Porsche 911 on zee autobahn, ja?

Putting aside the question of just where all these Volvo drivers were trying to break a hundred, Volvo is not the only automaker taking baby steps in this direction.

Auto safety experts have been predicting for years that the appearance of road-sign-reading tech in cars, connected car technology, and digital mapping would eventually bring about speed-limiting systems that would work in various ways to prevent exceeding posted speed limits. A number of new cars already display notifications on their digital instrument clusters when the speed limit is exceeded by the driver on a given stretch of road, and given the abundance of digital maps and navigation systems, cars don’t even need to read the signs on the side of the road — they already know where they are and how fast they are going.

A number of auto safety experts also expect that, aside from the already surpassed technological barrier for cars to limit their own speeds, the move toward electronically speed-limited cars would be driven by the insurance industry and the appearance of various parental controls in cars. In effect, to drive insurance prices for young drivers down, there would be an incentive to limit their ability to speed in a parent’s car. Once again, given the statistics for teen drivers, it’s difficult to make an argument against that sort of thing from an auto safety and insurance standpoint: Are you for allowing teenagers to hit triple-digit speeds on the way to school and back, the argument would go?

This sort of safety measure is not too far over the horizon, depending on where you live. Earlier this week, the European Union proposed plans to fit all new cars with Intelligent Speed Assistance devices by 2022, which will use GPS and road sign recognition tech to warn the driver of excessive speed and automatically slow down the vehicle. (However, under the proposed regulations drivers will still be able to speed back up to exceed the limit). In the European Union and the U.K., this system is something that will most likely be rolled out in new cars — it’s not an empty nanny-state threat. The EU also plans to fit all new cars with telemetry data recorders, like black boxes on airplanes, as an upgrade to the Russian dashcam craze.

There are some arguments against automatic speed limiters that function based on GPS data and road sign recognition. For example, passing maneuvers on European (or American) roads often require exceeding the posted limit a little to overtake one or two cars safely. If everyone is strictly limited to 45 mph on some country road out in the boonies, then no one will be able to pass unless one car slows down. The inherent lack of uniformity of the technology — there will still be cars on the road without this tech, after all — will also make some cars unable to execute needed maneuvers. At last, the Chevette could be the fastest car on the interstate simply because it’s too old to have limiting tech. And if a family member is having a medical emergency in rural Idaho and the closest hospital is 100 miles away, being forced to stick to the speed limit may be a matter of life and death. And if there is an option to override the car’s deceleration in response to road signs, wouldn’t some people just override the system every time? Back to square one.

In other words, there are some good arguments for allowing cars to exceed the speed limit even when the car would “know” that it’s probably wrong.

Here’s our question: Are automatic speed limiters in cars that observe posted limits on every road a good thing, or is this just too much meddling by technology when it comes to everyday driving?

Let us know in the comments below.