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Vehicle speed limiters: What are they, how do they work and what might really be behind the new EU legislation?

Last Updated: 28th Mar 2019
Vehicle speed limiters: What are they, how do they work and what might really be behind the new EU legislation?

28th March 2019

During March 2019 Speed Limiting Technology was discussed and agreed by the European Commission. A whole raft of new legislation (still to be rubber-stamped by the European Parliament in September) including “intelligent speed assistance” (ISA) technology is likely to be approved and this means that the UK’s own Vehicle Certification Agency -which regulates UK vehicles - are set to do the same.

What exactly are the proposed changes, how will they affect you, when are they likely to take effect and, apart from driver and pedestrian safety, what might really be behind the new legislation - it's not as obvious as you might think!

What was debated and agreed at European Commission level?

The European Commission proposed and accepted the following changes, some of which might be tweaked before they get to the European Parliament for ratification:

The mandatory introduction of ISA technology was only one of a number of proposed changes, designed in theory to improve road safety across Europe, reduce accidents, road deaths and to reduce the effect and severity of accidents on drivers and the general population. These proposed changes, taken from the European Commission Press release of 26th March 2019 include:

  1. For cars, vans, trucks and buses: warning of driver drowsiness and distraction (e.g. smartphone use while driving),intelligent speed assistance, reversing safety with camera or sensors, and data recorder in case of an accident (‘black box').
  2. For cars and vans: lane-keeping assistance, advanced emergency braking, and crash-test improved safety belts.
  3. For trucks and buses: specific requirements to improve the direct vision of bus and truck drivers and to remove blind spots, and systems at the front and side of the vehicle to detect and warn of vulnerable road users, especially when making turns.

There is no doubt that these changes will save lives through the official estimate of 25,000 lives within 15 years of introduction seems unlikely given the advances in autonomous vehicle technology, but more about that later.

What exactly is Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA) and how does it affect you?

One mans’ intelligent speed assistance device is another man's speed limiter. ISA technology and ISA systems can :

  • Identify the speed at which you are supposed to be travelling at - using satellite location and road sign recognition cameras in your car
  • Warn you when you are about to, or have, exceeded the speed limit
  • Take control of the vehicle to reduce speed so that it's under the speed limit

Contentious points in the new proposed Vehicle Safety Legislation:

It’s the last of these points that is possibly the most contentious. Is technology sophisticated enough to recognise all potential situations? For example, if you are already over the limit but have a tailgater right on your bumper and the ISA technology kicks in to reduce your speed, are you now more likely to have an accident than before?

In order to counter this and other situations where temporary speeding is more advantageous there have been recommendations to allow drivers to override the system - it has been suggested that a firm use of the accelerator could override the automatic braking but it will be interesting to see how this actually works in practice.

Another contentious addition is the use of the “black box” which the Commission has listed as useful technology, “in case of an accident”. This introduces the prospect of “Big Brother” technology which is one thing to have on thousands of cameras around the UK but another thing to have in your own car.

At what point is this information your own data and at what point is it public data? This proposed legislation has wider implications when it comes to existing GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) which is supposed to protect your own data and privacy.  

No doubt the Commission will find a way around these competing principles but the fact remains - how comfortable are you with a black box in your car that records your every journey, starting point and destination?

What could be the real reason for these changes in addition to increased safety?

Safety aside (and we should acknowledge that there is a great deal of upside in this respect),why would Governments be so keen to enact this legislation? Hint: Technology and Tax!

There are a number of macro forces at play here. Technology is moving at a fast pace when it comes to vehicles. There are serious advances in reduced emissions and the public are starting to buy more and more hybrid and electric vehicles. The greener cars become, the less Tax can be collected using emissions as a scale for vehicle taxation. You can see for yourself how improvements in vehicle efficiencies have altered vehicle tax bands and road car tax bands in recent years with all but the most efficient vehicles attracting both tax and additional expenses like congestion charges.

Government put in measures to encourage people to buy cars that are better for the environment and have put legislation to get manufacturers to switch to less traditional and harmful fuels. Both the public and the car manufacturers are responding, but quicker than anticipated - just look at Volvo’s commitment to reduce engine sizes, automatically limit top end speeds of their cars and a strategic move towards hybrid and electric vehicles as an example.

While Autonomous vehicles are not here today, the technology is in place to make this a reality. An autonomous, electric vehicle that picks you and the kids up at 8 o'clock in the morning and delivers you to work and the kids to school does not need to be owned or leased...it simply acts like a driverless taxi - how to collect tax on that?

The rise of these technologies means that vehicle tax in the future is likely to be collected on the basis of mileage done and possibly the purpose of the journey. The irony is that much of this technology sits on your average smartphone with the ability to digitally map your journey and to record exactly where you are going, how you got there, in what time and at what speed. The problem is that this data is “owned” by you and the app providers.

The question: What mechanism do the government use to collect tax on this basis?

The solution - make sure that all vehicles are fitted with technology which able to monitor speed and location...and by default length of journey, time of journey and possibly even purpose of the journey.

So there you have it, Environmental and Clean Air concerns, Technology like the rise of electric and autonomous vehicles, Tax implications, the laudable need for Safety legislation and, of all things, Privacy regulations working together to mean that your next new car is likely to have safety and data gathering technology built in automatically, whether you like it or not!

When will the legislation take force?

The new legislation is expected to be ratified in September 2019.

In the words of the European Commission, “The new safety features will become mandatory from 2022, with the exception of direct vision for trucks and buses and enlarged head impact zone on cars and vans, which will follow later due to the necessary structural design changes.”

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