On a Saturday afternoon in January 2022, a 2018 Dodge Challenger ran through a stop sign in Las Vegas, picked up the pace to a speed of 103 miles per hour and flew through an intersection on a red light. The Dodge struck the right side of a Toyota Sienna minivan, which carried seven occupants, causing four more vehicles to crash. The driver and passenger of the Dodge, as well as every passenger in the minivan, died.
The National Transportation Safety Board, a U.S. government agency that investigates such accidents, found that in this scenario and many others like it, a technology that limits the speed of vehicles could have mitigated the scale of this tragedy. The driver, who was found to have cocaine and PCP in his system which impaired his decision-making, had a record for breaking the speed limit.
The NTSB concluded that intelligent speed-assist technology (ISA) should be standard equipment in all new vehicles to prevent needless deaths. It’s no longer enough, the agency argues, to rely on states to deter driver speeding and recidivism. The agency, which doesn’t have the power to make regulations, is calling on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to mandate the use of this technology going forward.
“This crash is the latest in a long line of tragedies we’ve investigated where speeding and impairment led to catastrophe, but it doesn’t have to be this way,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy in a statement. “We know the key to saving lives is redundancy, which can protect all of us from human error that occurs on our roads. What we lack is the collective will to act on NTSB safety recommendations.”
How it works
ISA technology relies on a car’s GPS location and matches it to a database of posted speed limits and onboard cameras to come up with the legal speed limit. Passive ISA systems warn a driver when the vehicle exceeds the speed limit through sound, visuals or haptic alerts, leaving the driver responsible for slowing the car. Active systems might make it more difficult to increase the speed of a vehicle, or even fully limit it from going, above a posted speed limit.
Some Americans might chafe at the idea of an active ISA system that limits their freedom of movement. Limiting any freedom hits at the core of the American libertarian psyche and could be perceived as government overreach. Americans often have a general distrust of government interference and regulation, and might claim that limiting speeds is just the beginning. Some may even argue that ISA technology could hinder a quick getaway during an emergency situation.
From a technological standpoint, different sign designs and time-of-day speeds might make it difficult for ISA tech to be reliable.
That said, it’s undeniable that speeding is one of the leading causes of traffic-related deaths. According to recent NHTSA data, almost one-third of all traffic-related deaths are the direct result of speeding.
In Europe, ISA technology is already mandated for all new vehicles as of 2022, according to the European Commission’s Vehicle General Safety Regulation (GSR), which requires vehicles to have 90% accuracy for ISA systems. The GSR also includes requirements for mandatory advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), including emergency automated braking systems and lane assistance technology.
Volvo recently announced its EX30 electric vehicle with Google Built-in will have a passive ISA technology, making it eligible for GSR certification. Google Built-in, which is also in brands like Chevrolet, Renault, Polestar and Honda, relies on Maps rather than just the car’s cameras to get accurate speed limits. The Maps team analyzes traffic trends, gathers local data and cross-references street view or third-party partner data, according to a blog post by Siddarth Shashidharan, a Google Maps product manager.
Appealing to automakers
Following its investigation in the Las Vegas crash, the NTSB also asked 17 automakers, including BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda and VW, to equip new vehicles with speed-assistance features. The agency recommends that vehicles have a speed warning system at a minimum, but would likely support more robust action.
The NTSB has asked NHTSA to act on the adoption of ISA tech before. In 2017, the agency asked NHTSA to incentivize adoption of ISA through a New Car Assessment Program. As of February, NHTSA is currently reviewing public comments and is expected to post a final decision on the matter in 2023.
The NTSB has also recommended that NHTSA research and develop guidelines to help states implement a pilot ISA program that would limit the vehicle speed for repeat offenders. New York has done a pilot with such technology and is considering legislation.
Having a passive ISA system in vehicles seems like a no-brainer, considering the amount of ADAS going into new cars today, much of which promises to drive your car for you in certain circumstances. Lawmakers have also introduced, for example, legislation around driver monitoring systems, which can detect when a driver is tired, not paying attention or under the influence and take action.
TechCrunch has reached out to NHTSA for more information on the status of such a mandate.