Volvo’s decision to introduce a 112mph (180km/h) top speed on all its new cars from mid-2020 onwards is sure to spark a debate – and that’s exactly what the company is hoping for.
The Swedish firm has long pioneered making cars safer, and company boss Håkan Samuelsson said that having pushed car safety technology, it’s now time to focus on the three main human factors that contribute to road accidents: speeding, distraction and intoxication.
Samuelsson said the choice of 112mph was “a balance”: it exceeds the maximum speed limit in just about every country bar Germany. He added: “This is a limit where nobody should need a faster car.”
What comes next – particularly in attempting to combat distracted and intoxicated driving – is more intriguing, because it raises questions about balancing personal freedom with responsibility. As Volvo puts it, do car makers have the right or obligation to install in cars technology that can change a driver's behaviour?
GPS technology can be used to know the speed limits on roads someone is driving on. It’s an easy step from there to have such systems enforce the limit. At the same time, driver monitoring technology is being constantly refined and will soon be able to tell when someone behind the wheel is distracted or intoxicated – and potentially stop them from driving.
The question is, should such technology be used for that purpose? “Some people could see it as an intrusion,” said Samuelsson. “We’ve got no firm answer to that, so we need to think about how far we should go in limiting choice and freedom.
“It’s a discussion of whether we’re interfering in free will. There will be a debate over how much of a Big Brother Volvo should be and how much mature adults should take responsibility for their own lives.”
It’s an interesting question and Samuelsson noted similar debates were sparked when seatbelts were made compulsory, or smoking was banned in many public places.
Certainly, it’s hard to argue against using any technology that exists if it can save lives – especially when you consider dangerous drivers don’t just put themselves at risk, but others. But, particularly with systems such as driver monitors, questions over privacy and whose responsibility it is to enforce driver safety quickly become complicated.
Is having a computer monitor someone with a facial recognition camera an invasion of privacy? Is it a car firm’s responsibility to ensure drivers don’t break the law by speeding on certain roads? Are these issues for car firms, or governments?
I don’t have all the answers and it’s interesting – refreshing, even – to note Volvo admits that it doesn’t, either. Which is why it wants to spark a debate.
“It’s a discussion we need to have,” said Samuelsson, although he added: “But we know speed kills, so there is no reason to go beyond 112mph.”