The Nanny Cars are Coming (or Not)

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“We do not introduce a speed limiter!” European Parliament member Róża Thun said emphatically. The scene was a staid and barely attended press conference to announce “type approval” requirements for vehicles as of 2022. Normally, government announcements of type approval changes pass by unnoticed. New regulations for headlights, side-impact requirements, and backup cameras, among others, don’t usually rise to the level of news, let alone fake news.

“I saw a lot of fake news about this,” said Ms. Thun, who as rapporteur is charged with shepherding the regulations through parliament. “I almost think that the fake news about it, since the speed limiter is very unpopular, that they were spread around by some media and some anti-European parties.”

No doubt the Brexiteers have made speed limiter hay, although the U.K. announced it will also adopt the E.U. standard. U.S. outlets with no particular agenda have also put out fake news. “If You Won’t Stop Speeding, Your Car Will Do It for You,” headlined the New York Times. CNN, Forbes, and virtually every other outlet that covered the story offered similarly click-worthy ledes. “Say hi to the government in your car,” wrote Máté Petrány for Road & Track.
A nice open stretch of Germany’s Autobahn may no longer be haven to the wide-open throttle. (Photo: Getty Images)

Intelligent speed assist

Don’t believe it. Cars won’t prevent Europeans from speeding after 2022. The E.U. will, however, require Intelligent Speed Assist (ISA) systems in all new cars. ISA systems use a combination of GPS mapping data and cameras that read roadside signs to alert the driver of the current speed limit. The car knows when the speed zone changes and warns the driver when they have exceed it. The driver can also set the car to change its speed automatically when the speed zone changes. The techniques for managing speed are somewhat different, but the result is not unlike adaptive cruise control, which has been around for over 20 years.

Cars that cannot speed would upend over a century of car culture. The thrill and danger of speeding has characterized motoring since the earliest days. “Gasoline rabies” infected otherwise responsible gentleman drivers, newspapers warned. “Motoring madness” was a thing. Governors were proposed in the 1920s, although these would have only limited a top speed. Some safety advocates suggested two carburetor settings: one for slower city driving and one for the country. The driver would be responsible for switching between the two. Such ideas never gained much traction.

In the 1950s, anti-speed messages blanketed the airwaves. Americans could not escape the message: “Drive at sensible speeds. The life you save may be your own.”

In 1979, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) set new speedometer requirements to discourage speeding. Top indicated speeds were capped at 85 miles per hour, well below the 120-mph top speed then indicated. You could still do 100, but the car wouldn’t cheer you on past 85. Automakers also had to highlight 55 on the dial, then the national speed limit. The rule was abandoned a few years later.

Although we’ve known since the dawn of the motor age that speed kills, we have never reigned it in. Speed is a factor in 25 to 30 percent of all fatal crashes, resulting in roughly 9-10,000 deaths a year, according to the NHTSA.

The BMW X5’s instrument panel alerts its driver to the speed limit. (Photo: BMW)

Would a limiter work?

Ian Reagan, a Senior Scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, may know more about Intelligent Speed Assistance systems than anyone else on the planet. A decade ago, he conducted his doctoral research on prototype ISA systems. Some test subjects were given a monetary incentive: $25 with the caveat that they would be dinged every time they went too fast. “The incentive,” says Reagan, “almost eliminated the amount of time people were speeding.” Not so much with the warning. “It had a measurable effect but nowhere near what we saw with the incentive.

Reagan also tested gas pedals that push back when you try to drive too fast. I imagined getting into a wrestling match with the car. But he reports quickly getting used to the technique, known as haptic feedback. Obeying the limit became natural.

Aside from consumer resistance, it’s not entirely clear that such systems are ready for prime time. Kelly Funkhouser of Consumer Reports has my dream job, assessing the very latest in Advanced Driver Assist Systems, including ISA. She gets to drive everything.

“My experience with some of the systems hasn’t been flawless to say the least,” Funkhouser reports.

She’s experienced sudden deceleration that leaves her moving much more slowly than the surrounding traffic. “So I’m very cautious when I use it and oftentimes looking at the car behind me to see how frustrating I am to them,” she laughs.

BMW 3-seriesThe BMW 330i gave me gasoline rabies. (Photo: BMW)

Gasoline rabies

I don’t have COVID-19 yet, but I am definitely infected with gasoline rabies. That’s why I try not to drive my wife’s stick-shift 2000 BMW 323i. My intelligent speed limiter is the minivan. But on a recent trip to Utah — top highway speed 80 mphI got my hands on a 2020 330i with only 100 miles on the clock.

Intelligent Speed Assistance is available on BMWs with the optional Driving Assistant Professional and operates with adaptive cruise control. It offers different levels of intelligence, from warning signs to full-on automation. It can even be set to adjust the speed as the vehicle enters a curve. There’s no haptic feedback at the gas pedal. It simply goes dead when the selected top limit is reached.

There were too many options for a mere minivan driver to learn in a week. But my experience left me wanting more. The instrument cluster screen relayed an enormous amount of information without being cluttered. I never got comfortable with the Lane Departure Assist system, even on Utah’s pristine highways. But the icons for it were still nice to look at.

The speed and precision with which the car recognized the change in speed zones floored me. That’s down to the incredibly fast graphical process units automakers now use. It became a bit of a game to watch it change as we passed the speed limit sign.

I did ignore the system at times because, well, did I mention I drive a minivan? I could even feel my right brain and left brain wrestling for control of my psyche. Still, with ISA my misbehaviors were shorter lived than they would otherwise have been.

A 3 Series BMW with a speed nanny — whether merely scolding or fully in charge — seems deeply ironic. Still, the measure of an “Ultimate Driving Machine” may be changing slowly. Over time, drivers may judge that the ability to customize the driving experience by touch screen and toggle switch a better measure of a driving machine than how fast it can corner.

That won’t happen overnight. Any attempt by the NHTSA to require mandatory speed limiters will be met with pitchforks and torches for the foreseeable future. Mandating Intelligent Speed Assistance systems would, however, be a boon, and not just for safety. Why should the luxury car buyer get to have all the fun? In Europe, even the lowliest Fiat will get ISA.

Meanwhile, the alarm over European speed limiters speaks to more than anti-E.U. sentiment. It’s hard to know where automobile technology — from electrification to autonomy — is leading us. The car culture is being upended in ways large and small today. Not knowing what the future holds makes people nervous. Witness the empty shelves at the grocery this week. The fake-news mongers certainly deserve the E.U.’s sharp rebuke. Many of us, however, need Róża Thun to play the role of comforting nanny. “Everything will be alright, darling,” she might announce at her next presser. “Driving can still be fun. Just try to drive at sensible speeds. The life you save may be your own.”

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