Europe has voted to make speed limiters mandatory in new cars. Does this mean our free-driving days are coming to an end?
If you are a regular visitor to Cars.co.za, it stands to reason that you like driving, and would (most probably) regard government agencies tasked with monitoring your right to own and operate a private vehicle as bothersome.
President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to sign the licence points demerit system into law soon. In principle, it’s a punitive system that has proven effective in countries such as Germany and the UK. There's no fault with attempting to emulate the road safety standards in European countries...
The EU is targeting safer roads by mandatory speed limit enforcement from your car.
What has not been atop our google newsfeeds, however, is a far more radical, and potentially disruptive, political intervention that will directly target the cars we drive, or, more to the point, the cars we will drive in the very near future. In late February, the European Parliament voted unanimously to enforce a law that will require vehicles operated in its legislature to be factory-fitted with speed limiters.
The technology is called Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) and it doesn’t use any brake-intervention technology to trim a vehicle's speed. What ISA does, after harvesting GPS data about the road you are on, is to limit the power output of a car's engine. It also uses onboard cameras to reinforce its intuition about speed limits, through the utilisation of road-sign recognition technology. Unlike systems that merely annoy the driver by buzzing a warning about exceeding the speed limit, ISA provides an active nannying intervention – and that’s potentially a huge issue.
Hypothetically lethal ISA interventions
If the EU parliamentarians who voted for mandatory ISA fitment within the next 3 years get their way, there could be unintended consequences for drivers and road users. The ISA systems will have to feature an override function, and it is understood that this will merely require sustained throttle pedal pressure to supersede. It'd be mildly annoying in most driving conditions, but for overtaking, ISA could, theoretically, cause lethal delays.
Overtaking with a speed limiter could be tricky, to say the least.
Imagine this scenario: while you're undertaking a journey in your car, you encounter a line of trucks that are rolling along under load, at a few kph under the speed limit. You wish to overtake and realise that a sustained burst of acceleration will be required. This action is very likely to momentarily push you past the speed limit before you can settle back into your lane and ease off the throttle.
With an aggressively engineered ISA system, there could be a few seconds of delay before your throttle pedal action is rewarded with a burst of full engine power as your intent overrides the system. This is a potentially fatal scenario, given the traditional timeframe most drivers use to calculate a safe margin of overtaking. An ISA system that limits engine power could make overtaking an irrational gamble in future.
Traffic enforcement won't applaud this, but when overtaking slower traffic it's unavoidable to exceed the speed limit, even if only for a few seconds.
Does Volvo know something we don’t?
The car company most closely associated with safety innovation as its marketing anchor, Gothenburg-based firm Volvo, has responded to the EU parliament’s political direction by announcing that from 2020, all cars produced by the Swedish manufacturer will be limited to a 180-kph top speed.
For Volvo, there is no potential revenue risk in this decision. Its products are favoured for their Scandinavian design, comfort and inoffensive social image. Speed is not a Volvo selling point. Safety is. But a 180-kph speed limit could be argued as generous.
“We want to start a conversation about whether car makers have the right or maybe even an obligation to install technology in cars that changes their driver’s behaviour, to tackle things like speeding, intoxication or distraction,” says Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo’s CEO.
From 2020, all Volvos will be limited to 180 kph.
The conflict is, of course, that all luxury automotive brands have increased the issue of in-cabin distraction to a nearly unmanageable level with enormous touchscreen infotainment interfaces. Drivers are given every possible opportunity to be distracted by interaction with digital media. That said, Volvo’s 180-kph limit is probably a fair compromise, allowing a sufficient margin of speed for drivers to manage emergency acceleration.
Volvo is perhaps being slightly disingenuous about its position on the restriction of vehicles' top speeds. Polestar has been rerolled from Volvo’s erstwhile performance car subdivision to its standalone electric car sub-brand. What's more, Volvo has confirmed that the 180 kph limit will not apply to any Polestar products, which are being marketed as performance-orientated electric vehicles.
The unintended consequences: South Africa’s reality
What happens in Europe is important to South Africa, as all our most popular luxury and performance vehicles are German. If those brands are forced to adhere to increasingly draconian factory-fitted speed restriction technology, your road trip might take a lot longer than anticipated in future.
There are crucial differences between South Africa and Europe in terms of geography and population density. In Western Europe, villages are separated by just a few kilometres in most cases. The idea of madly speeding along on narrow roads with ancient brick walls only a few centimetres from your wing mirrors makes little sense. It’s a world away from the open expanses and sparseness of the Northern Cape, for example.
South Africa, unlike Europe has vast distances between towns, meaning your journey could take a lot longer than anticipated.
In South Africa, the distances between towns can be vast. And those roads are (mostly) uncrowded, so perhaps road traffic authorities could be convinced to tolerate higher-than-average speeds (within reason) on rural asphalt routes (road conditions permitting, of course)? However, bear in mind that driving on those roads at dusk or dawn is dangerous, because wild animals are more likely to cross roads in dim light.
Here's a thought... From 1995 to 1998, road users in Montana were only beholden to a "reasonable-and-prudent" speed restriction on highways. The relatively unpopulated US state wanted its citizens to get home before sunset, to avoid vehicle collisions with wildlife. The law was deemed too vague, creating confusion between drivers and highway patrolman alike, and was repealed in 1998. It did prove that difference in animal and pedestrian behaviour, average driving distances and daylight hours were all factors worth considering when legislating how people should drive.
There is another element to arguing against mandatory speed limiters on South African cars. Local emergency response services are overwhelmed (both law enforcement and medical) and swiftly-driven private vehicles are often the only lifelines for patients that have to be transported to care facilities within the golden hour. A similar thread of logic can be woven into the issue of responding to crime incidents – especially rural lawbreaking.
What does Germany teach us?
The country that potentially has the most to lose if mandated speed limiters are universally introduced, is Germany.
Virtually all German passenger-vehicle brands (not only the premium-badged ones) turn a tidy profit by marketing vehicles that are renowned for their ability to effortlessly run to their 250-kph factory fitted limiters. And most Teutonic car companies offer customers the option of lifting those electronic governors to 280 kph or beyond, at extra cost. Speed has been a quintessential leverage for the German car industry since the late 1970s, around the same time Germany introduced the demerit driving licence system, which now looms large for South African motorists.
The Germans have the most to lose with an enforced speed limit.
The Bundesrepublik is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, but even with huge traffic volumes and terrifying wet driving weather for most of the year, road traffic fatalities are remarkably low. This issue becomes even more perplexing when you factor in the presence of unrestricted portions of the German national highway system: those legendary bits of autobahn where you can go as fast as you’d like. In truth, the unrestricted zones make up a little more than half the total autobahn network – but you never see reckless behaviour on them or hear of catastrophic accidents.
In my time as a motoring journalist, which has involved the curiosity of high-speed autobahn driving, I know of only 2 fatal high-speed testing incidents. The first was in 2009, when a midnight headlight test session went awry in a Porsche 911 cabriolet prototype, resulting in the death of the driver. The following year, a camouflaged Mercedes ML rolled after impacting a stationary Mazda, resulting in the death of the smaller car’s driver.
The evidence provided by Germany’s autobahn is irrefutable: speed restriction is not an overriding solution in reducing road use fatalities. Those unrestricted bits of autobahn are less lethal than restricted highways in most other parts of the world and the lesson from Germany is that diligent and disciplined drivers, in excellently maintained vehicles, can use high-speed public roads without increased risk to themselves or others.
How does this all link to South Africa’s demerit system? Much like the EU legislation concerning factory fitment of ISA to new cars, which will have to be negotiated between individual EU member states, it completely discounts the issue of digital distraction. As infotainment touchscreens become bigger and entice drivers to use more of their Smartphone functionality on the move, there appears no demerit point penalties for digital distraction.
Politicians are excessively keen to legislate vehicle speed, but there is no political awareness concerning driver distraction. For ISA technology to ever become an applied issue for South African drivers, it will have to pass muster in the European Union first. One suspects that Germany, as Europe’s most populous and powerful nations, will not allow speed limiting legislation to pass all that easily. At least not yet.