The National Transportation Safety Board has a simple request: Cars need to slow down to save lives, possibly via technology if the dumb humans behind the wheel refuse to do it. While it sounds like a potential nightmare scenario let’s take a look at the facts.
NTSB points out that over 108,000 Americans have lost their lives in crashes where speed was a factor over the last decade. Such deaths might be prevented by limiting the speed cars can travel in certain areas. Limiting speed is just the latest recommendation from the federal agency, and has been surprisingly and completely dishonestly reported in a video CNN entitled “Will Tech Force Cars To Slow Down.” The host kicks off the segment by asking “are we getting closer to having our cars monitored and controlled by the government?”
Listen, I get it: Who doesn’t like a snappy headline that clicks well? A premise that will get folks active in the comments and lead them to hitting those all-important like and subscribe buttons. But what NTSB actually did was recommend a timetable to put together incentives for automakers that put speed limiters in new cars. Not sure how you get from that to “Our cars are in danger of being monitored and controlled by the government!” Even CNN admits, this “limitation” could come in the form of an audible or visual warning—a feature already familiar to anyone with a newer vehicle.
A little about the NTSB; it’s a federal organization in charge of investigating transportation crashes, whether those crashes happen on highways, water, pipelines or railroads. Since the organization started its work in 1967 the NTSB has issued over 13,000 recommendations for policy changes that studies show would save more lives. These are recommendations, not requirements, though the NTSB closely follows any policy change in support of their recommendations. NTSB recommended, for instance, that all cars come with breathalyzer ignition interlock devices to prevent drunk driving—a requirement also listed in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill. The agency is recommending a three year time frame for coming up with incentives for automakers—not demanding the feds all rig vehicles with government control devices.
The more extreme version of NTSB’s recommendation would involve automakers limiting speeds on their cars using cameras and satellite navigation to control how fast the car is allowed to drive. Called Intelligent Speed Assistance, it’s not as dystopian as it sounds; automakers are already required to sell cars with ISA installed in Europe starting this year. Several American automakers, like Ford and Jeep, got a head-start and have been installing the tech in European models for years. A new pilot program in New York City put ISAs in 50 government fleet vehicles — the first city in the nation to do so.
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According to the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), which advised the European Parliament on ISA systems, speeding is a major problem in many European countries, with a large proportion of the 500 deaths each week on EU roads caused by drivers going too fast. Research in Sweden and the Netherlands has shown that when using an ISA system, motorists drive more slowly, even when it can be switched off.
The system that will become mandatory on new cars in 2022 uses a forward-facing camera mounted on the car and the vehicle’s satellite navigation system to identify the speed limit and, if the car is exceeding it, to restrict the fuel flowing to the engine until the vehicle is at the limit speed.
At no point does it operate the brakes, so the reduction in the car’s speed is gentle and progressive. As the ISA comes into play, the accelerator pedal becomes unresponsive. The ISA system approved by the EU will be overridable, which means the driver can ignore it by firmly pressing the accelerator. If the driver continues to drive above the speed limit, the system will sound and display a warning for several seconds.
The system is likely to be ‘default on’ – meaning it’s active every time the car is started – but can cancelled by the driver at any time. The ETSC recommended this feature be included during the first few years to make ISA systems more acceptable to motorists. Of course, this means the system could one day be permanently active.
The ISA in New York’s cars can be overridden for 15 seconds at the push of a button, and the European drivers can completely turn their ISA off, though studies show the slower driving habit remains even with the ISA turned off.
At no point is the government tracking or controlling anyone’s car, I mean, anymore than they already are. Governments large and small have been controlling your actions on the roads since the first mass-produced cars hit the market and the feds have been regulating them since the 1960s. If you want to talk about the government tracking American’s movements, consider the license plate readers and automatic cameras already in use by police departments as well as available to civilians, or pedestrian cameras operated by private companies contracted by municipalities. Laws controlling how long such data is stored, who can access it and how it can be use are flimsy at best, or completely nonexistent at worse.
Also, considering the amount of death on American roadways—43,000 people last year alone, a 16-year high—you’d think making cars slow down wouldn’t be the worst idea anyone has ever come up with. We are in no danger of this technology becoming commonplace for many years if ever, despite it being capable of saving thousands of lives every year at the expense of only inconveniencing law-breaking drivers.
If the thought of ISAs controlling your speed makes you uncomfortable, I’ve got bad news for you when it comes to self-driving cars: They will never work until everything—cars, infrastructure, and everyone else—is on a massive, federally built network together. The days of Tesla Autopilot breaking traffic laws are coming to a close. A driverless future won’t happen unless all vehicles obey the rules.