It's Time for Geofencing and Speed Limiters on North American Cars

BMW says it can be done with e-bikes, so why not with cars?

Cincinatti Post 1923
Americans have been fighting against speed governors since 1923.

Cincinatti Post/Peter Norton

Valdemar Avila and his wife Fatima were killed last week. The couple was driving down a residential street with a 30 mph speed limit in Toronto when they were rear-ended by a driver of a 2013 BMW 320i "traveling at a high rate of speed."

We have written many posts about how hard it is to control speeding when the roads are designed so that people can drive twice as fast and the cars are designed to go four times as fast. And this is in a city where the police actually admitted that they don't enforce traffic safety measures, they are too busy.

In Europe, they have been trying to deal with the problem by requiring "Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA)"—a fancier way of saying speed governors, devices that prevent cars from going over a set limit. They will be required in new car models in 2022 and all new cars in 2024.

Americans have been fighting these since they were first proposed in 1923. They are much more sophisticated now: modern systems can read signs and use GPS. Under pressure from the industry, the European system also got watered down so it no longer cuts engine power. Now it is just "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," although the legislation may be revised after two years.

ISA doesn't work

 European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association

Back in 2018, in their battle against ISA, the European car industry complained that it didn't work well enough.

"ISA systems still show too many false warnings due to incorrect or outdated information. For example, because road signs are not harmonized 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."

But times have evidently changed. BMW, the maker of cars that seem to be disproportionately responsible for deadly high speed crashes like the recent one in Toronto (see a Finnish study showing how BMW and Audi owners drive like idiots) recently came out and said geofencing and speed limiters are a great idea—for their new e-bikes.

BMW's press release introducing the bike states:

"Interestingly, the BMW i Vision AMBY uses geo-fencing to know where the bike is, thus allowing it to automatically adjust its top speed. This way you don’t have maniacs riding at 37 mph down the bike lane and your local park."

Now if BMW can say that about e-bikes, surely it would recognize the danger of having its car owners driving at 37 mph down Parkside Drive in Toronto, with its 30 mph limit. Companies like BMW kind of lose the right to criticize geofencing and speed controls on cars if they support them on bikes.

In fact, geofencing and speed limiters have proven to be quite effective for e-scooters and e-bikes. A recent study for Caltrans, "Analyzing the Potential of Geofencing for Electric Bicycles and Scooters in the Public Right of Way," looked at cities with geofencing requirements and found that the system works well in some places, not so well in others.

"The Denver Public Works and City of San Diego respondents reported that geofenced boundaries generally work as expected and consistently across all vendors. However, respondents from Los Angeles Department of Transportation, City of Fort Collins and Portland Bureau of Transportation reported varying performance. In Los Angeles, the geofencing boundaries generally all work the same, depending on the e-bike’s or e-scooter’s ping rate (thee-bike or e-scooter location information that is automatically and consistently sent to the vendor's servers). But the time it takes for the vehicle to recognize it is within a geofenced area will vary, causing some vehicles to take longer to decelerate. In Fort Collins, where a single vendor (Bird) is used, geofencing operation is inconsistent because of GPS limitations. In Portland, geofencing technology functions inconsistently, even within a single company."
BMW parked on sidewalk
Carefully parked BMW on Toronto sidewalk.

Lloyd Alter

But this relatively new technology and these are small systems in cheap scooters. A car-based system could be a lot more robust. And they are even developing "innovative methods of preventing scooter riding on sidewalks. Providers are exploring the use of evolving technologies (such as Bluetooth beacons and cameras)." This is also a problem common to BMWs.

Kevin McLaughlin knows his cars (he founded Autoshare in Toronto) and bikes (he is CEO of Zygg, an e-bike service). He tells Treehugger:

"Given that the scooter industry - a half dozen companies worth ~$1B each in last 5 years - has invested massively in being able to prevent people from parking their machines on sidewalks, or lying down, or driving them too quickly in certain areas of the city, or any number of other questionable actions with the light electric vehicles, how is it that car companies haven’t done the same thing with their 2 ton vehicles capable of such destruction?
Cars could easily be ‘governed’ to a safe speed for teenagers, in school zones, or simply across cities in general. This would be a huge step in vehicle safety and save lives without question, but the companies are absolutely quiet on this. And weird so are the politicians so far.
Car companies are falling over themselves to make Smart, Connected and Self-Driving cars. They have made the occupants safe already, and now the future is robots driving so that traffic can move efficiently. But we have the tech today to make them safer for everyone - if they would start by automatically obeying the speed limits. I can only assume that robots built and owned by Ford will have to do this in the future - over the rules of the road - so why not make this happen now? $1,000 scooters know where they are, and what they are allowed to do - down to whether they are on the sidewalk, or the road. New cars are stuffed with screens, GPS, maps, googling this and apple-connecting that. The cars know where they are, how fast they are going - and what the speed limit is. All. The. Time. TODAY. No new tech needed."

So could speed limiters and geofencing come to North American cars? Some are talking about it, like Chris Chilton at Carscoops, saying it sounds "like something straight out of George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare, 1984."

"And if you’re sitting in the U.S. thinking ‘that won’t affect me because they still haven’t taken my guns, and they sure aren’t taking my right to do 90 in 25,’ is it that unrealistic to think that even if it’s not taken up at a Federal level, some states may adopt the tech if stats surface suggesting limiters might cut accidents, injuries and deaths? America was the land of the 55 mph limit and 85 mph speedometer, after all."

There was also a similar battle over mandatory seat belt use, where people would complain in 1985 that "this is not supposed to be Russia where the government tells you what to do and when to do it." Or as one history of the seatbelt noted, "The public outrage was practically an allergic reaction. Who did those interfering busybodies in Washington think they were? They’d be banning smoking in bars, next."

Times change and attitudes change. Many people are tired of the carnage. The technology is available to do this now; it's time to have a serious discussion about geofencing and speed limiters on cars. BMW started it: If it is good enough for bikes, there's no reason not to have it in cars.