Part Two of Two – Intelligent Speed Assistance

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all new vehicles be equipped with (a) passive blood-alcohol monitoring and (b) intelligent speed adaptation advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). The NTSB issued these two recommendations after investigating a horrific New Year’s Day 2021 crash that killed nine people in Avenal, California. That crash occurred when an intoxicated driver crossed the centerline of a two-lane highway. At the time, he was traveling 88-98 mph—33-43 mph above the posted 55-mph speed limit. He struck a pickup head-on, tragically killing himself and a family of eight. The NTSB’s recommendations address two problematic aspects of this driver’s conduct that account for significant societal harm in the U.S.: impaired driving and speeding.

Is this anything new? And does it signify a potential move towards strict products liability by auto manufacturers for driver fault via illegal activity? This two-part post will address those questions. In short, the answers are (a) kind of, but not really, and (b) not quite—these technologies are nascent, not state of the art.

NTSB FARO Scans of Vehicles Involved in Avenal Crash

The second half of this analysis of the NTSB’s recent recommendation will address intelligent speed assistance (ISA).  Drunk driving (the subject of the first half of this series) is never okay. But ISA interacts with a driver behavior that is sometimes okay, sometimes even necessary: speeding.

ISA systems detect speed limits, typically via camera recognition of speed-limit signs. They then provide a driver alert or intervene to lower vehicle speed if the driver exceeds the speed limit.

European Transport Safety Council Graphic on ISA

Evidence from Europe suggests that speed limiting or controlling ISA systems (as opposed to information or alert-only systems) are associated with larger reductions in speeding. But there is limited empirical evidence in the form of studies in the U.S. on this issue. And IIHS research indicates that both information/alert-based and speed-limiting/controlling systems face substantial consumer resistance in the U.S.

The European Commission recently approved a rule making ISA mandatory for all new vehicles as of 2022. Under this rule, the ISA system must be automatically activated when the ignition switch is engaged, though it can be disabled. Existing Euro NCAP test protocols (which are not mandatory) require that the speed control function be capable of de-activation at any time. As the EU rule and Euro NCAP standards implicitly recognize, there are certain situations in which speeding can be considered reasonable—e.g. getting out of trouble in an emergency or maintaining high-speed traffic flow.

In short, current and proposed European ISA systems allow for driver override and disabling. It is not clear that any existing or contemplated system would employ a mandatory governor in passenger vehicles or otherwise completely prevent impaired (or non-impaired) drivers from speeding, if they choose to. The technology—current and emerging—isn’t a guarantor against speeding. And while ISA appears poised to be made mandatory for new vehicles in Europe, it is not something that has been the subject of any widespread implementation in the U.S.