Big Surprise: Car Industry Doesn't Like the Idea of Speed Governors

They fought them in 1923 and they are fighting them today.

A screenshot of a newspaper ad

Fighting Traffic / Peter Norton

There is discussion in Europe about installing "intelligent speed assistance" on cars, which is a fancier name for a speed governing device that controls how fast a car can go. It is not a new idea. We have covered it before.

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Fighting Traffic / Peter Norton

In 1923, the city of Cincinnati proposed a law that would require speed governors on cars that would shut their engines off if they exceeded 25 mph. Peter Norton wrote in Fighting Traffic about the reaction from the industry:

Though local, the Cincinnati speed governor war of 1923 brought home to motordom its danger more powerfully than any ink-and-paper warning could. It frightened an industry. It convinced it to give up hope in the prevailing definition of traffic safety, and to do battle against those who advanced it. Motordom mobilized to fight the threat, and in so doing it formed new, well-funded safety institutions that reconstructed the safety problem.

Motordom complained that governors would be unreliable, easy to tamper with, and problematic on hills. But mostly, it hated how "it kept the burden of responsibility for accidents on motorists" and killed the biggest advantage cars had—speed. It won the war in 1923 and learned from it.

After it won, it never returned to a peacetime footing. Institutions and cooperative arrangements formed during the fight persisted and grew.

And it changed the discussion about safety. No longer would there be any thought about limiting speed. Indeed, one industry executive explained that “the motor car was invented so that man could go faster” and that “the major inherent quality of the automobile is speed.”

Instead, the approach to safety would be to control the pedestrians and get them out of the way—to separate them with jaywalking laws and strict controls. Over time, safety would be redefined to make roads safer for cars, not people.

A graphic about what is intelligent speed assistance.
European Transport Safety Council

Now, almost a century later, the same battle is being fought over intelligent speed assistance. It's much more sophisticated than the governors of a hundred years ago, having GPS and being able to read road signs, keeping the car at the maximum legal speed. And guess what? The industry says it won't work. Arthur Neslen wrote in The Guardian:

Car industry lobbyists are pushing the EU to weaken safety technology proposals, even though their own research predicts the move would cause more than 1,000 extra road deaths each year. The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (Acea) is fiercely opposing an EU attempt to benchmark a technology that automatically reduces car speeds to local limits. The group favours one that just sends speeding drivers a dashboard warning.

European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) claims:

ISA systems still show too many false warnings due to incorrect or outdated information. For example, because road signs are not harmonised across Europe. Digital maps are also not fully populated with speed limit information for all roads, and data are not always updated. Moreover, camera-based systems cannot anticipate all scenarios, such as when traffic signs are covered up.

Instead, the industry wants speed limit information (SLI). It is basically an indicator that tells the driver they are going faster than the speed limit, which the driver is then free to ignore. The consultants, quoted in The Guardian, disagree with the industry:

“If every [vehicle] in the EU28 today was fitted with SLI instead of ISA, approximately 1,300 more people would be killed on our roads every year. SLI is not an effective alternative to ISA.”
road deaths

European Transport Safety Council

It is easy to see why the industry is so threatened by ISA. Imagine being forced to go 25 mph on an empty road engineered for people going twice as fast, in vehicles engineered to go four times as fast. People wouldn't buy big muscle cars because they would never get to open them up. People would get incredibly frustrated.

It will also be one of the problems with self-driving cars; when they are going the speed limit everyone else around them will be going nuts. It's why ISA will never happen. The voters would put on their yellow vests and would throw out any politician who brought them in.