The Independent recently reported on the announcement that, from 2022 speed limiters will be fitted to new cars.  In the UK this has been given a warm welcome by many motoring and road safety organisations. The European Transport Safety Council has heralded the move to autonomous vehicles saying it will save many lives.  However, as you would imagine not everyone is as keen on the move seeing it as big brother type surveillance, especially where aircraft-type black boxes for cars are concerned! 

Motoring organisation, the AA, point out that there are times when a temporary increase in speed is necessary, when overtaking for example and where not having the ability to utilise the necessary burst of speed might even be dangerous.  But is the downside outweighed by the real benefit of saving lives is concerned? What exactly does the new technology involve?

speed limiters 
will be fitted to new cars.

• SPT (speed assistance technology) operates through GPS (global positioning system) establishing the location of a vehicle and then sending notification of the speed limit of the road the car is travelling on.  There is also the option of having a camera that picks up roadside speed signs too. Using this information the car, and not the driver would keep the car under the speed limit.

The EU proposed legislation does, however, allow for discretion by the driver who, if they wanted to override the set speed, would simply press the accelerator.

The technology is already available in some vehicles and is seen by many as a step on the way to the AV (autonomous vehicle) that will have no driver override and will have to stick to the speed limit.

There are some other issues however that need to be looked at to assess whether the pros of this level of autonomy outweigh the cons.

Reality vs. theory

How much is this type of technology going to influence driver’s behaviour and what would the impact be on driving skills and safety? Some employees at Volvo were asked to take part in a trial in which they were told that the car was autonomous but that they would have the responsibility for emergency braking. The employees were quick to take on the reassuring autonomy of the car but although they had been told that they had to brake in an emergency, when push came to shove only a third applied the brakes immediately while another third delayed applying the brakes and most worryingly, a third did not apply the brakes at all, presumably thinking the car would do it for them!

Other questions being asked are:

• Would a driver allow the autonomous car to drive at the speed limit even when conditions suggested that a lower speed would be safer?

• How can the safety of the system be demonstrated before it is launched or used in a trial?  Conditions would have to be identified that might confuse the system and lead to the wrong decision being made, autonomously.

• What will happen when the speed limiter interacts with autonomous emergency braking, cruise control etc.?

• What would be the deceleration profile when the car moves from say, a 50 to a 30 mph limit and would that change if the vehicle was being followed very closely by an articulated lorry? How could the car SPT sense this?

• What about the so called “responsibility gap” the cross over between the AV’s responsibility and the drivers when, for instance, the system is slowing the vehicle for a new speed limit but the driver presses the accelerator to get past an obstacle in the road. Who will prevail?

Those involved in producing AV’s are looking at these problems and suggest that sensors to the front and rear of the car could be used for this kind of scenario.  The law commission have got involved as well, studying the law as it applies to AV’s. There is no doubt that AV’s bring with them a whole new can of worms. The safety features of AV do have the potential to save lives but there are also, clearly, other things that need to be considered with this technology.  For our OWO readers, watch this space, we will let you know as things change!

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