Intelligent Speed Assistance Coming to European Cars in 2022

It's not quite a speed governor that controls your car, but it is a start.

speed limiter in action
Speed limiter reads signs.

Ford Motor Company

After a long battle, the European Union has finally made a feeble form of "Intelligent Speed Assistance" (ISA) mandatory on all new models of cars sold in Europe as of 2022 and every new car by 2024. 

ISA is the modern, vague name for what used to be called a speed governor, a device that limits the speed a car can go. It works with cameras and GPS to determine the speed limit and then can control the throttle. The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) called it the biggest thing since the seat belt; Treehugger quoted it earlier:

"Positive impacts include encouraging walking and cycling due to increased perceived safety of cars vis-à-vis vulnerable road users, a traffic calming effect, reductions in insurance costs, higher fuel efficiency, and reduced CO2 emissions. Tackling excessive speed is fundamental to reducing the figure of 26,000 road deaths every year in Europe. With mass adoption and use, ISA is expected to reduce collisions by 30% and deaths by 20%."
vote yes
They voted no.

via Peter Norton, "Fighting Traffic"

Speed Governors have been controversial since at least 1923 when the car industry fought their introduction in Cincinnati. Peter Norton wrote in "Fighting Traffic" about the carmaker's victory:

"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."

Treehugger has been covering the battle over ISA for years, noting it is easy to see why the industry is so threatened by them. "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." 



When first proposed, ISA was supposed to cut engine power when the speed limit was reached, much like a traditional speed governor. The industry managed to water down the ISA significantly. At first, they insisted that there had to be a way to override it "for safety reasons," like passing or being chased, so putting the pedal to the metal would allow bursts of speed. Even so, the ETSC estimated that it would reduce road deaths by 20%. 

But the industry didn't stop there, and the EU finally approved a system that the ETSC says is expected to be much less effective, basically an alarm system.

"The most basic system allowed simply features an audible warning that starts a few moments after the vehicle exceeds the speed limit and continues to sound for a maximum of five seconds. ETSC says research shows audible warnings are annoying to drivers, and therefore more likely to be switched off. A system that is deactivated has no safety benefit."

The Executive Director of the ETSC, Antonio Avenoso, is not impressed.

"More than twenty years after this technology was first trialed, it is great to see Intelligent Speed Assistance finally coming to all new vehicles in the EU. It is a big step forward for road safety. However, we are disappointed that carmakers are being given the option to install an unproven system that may have little safety benefit. We sincerely hope that carmakers will go beyond the minimum specifications and take full advantage of the life-saving potential of speed assistance technology. It saves lives, prevents serious injuries, and saves fuel and emissions.“

That's not likely, but the upside of this kind of warning system is that it might make it to North America without setting off the "war on the car" gang since it is really nothing more than a bunch of bells and whistles that can be turned off. In Europe, the ISA system is designed to collect anonymous data and report how it is used and how often it is switched off, and after two years the legislation can be revised.

We have noted that during the pandemic, American pedestrian deaths increased 21% and that car crash fatalities rose 24%. ISA may have been reduced to a noisy beeper, but we are losing the war on the car. ISA, even in this milquetoast form, should be in every car, everywhere.