For as long as there have been cars on American roads, the decision to obey speed limits — or recklessly push a vehicle to the edge of its performance — typically has been left to drivers.
Now one major auto manufacturer is reclaiming some of that control. This week, Volvo, the Chinese-owned Swedish automotive brand known for its emphasis on safety, announced plans to cap the top speed of all its new cars.
Beginning in 2020, the company said, Volvo cars will be limited to 180 kph — or about 112 mph. The change is part of an ambitious plan called Vision 2020, which seeks to eliminate all serious injuries and driving deaths in new Volvos by next year.
“Volvo is a leader in safety: we always have been and we always will be,” Hakan Samuelsson, Volvo’s president and chief executive, said in a statement released Monday. "Because of our research we know where the problem areas are when it comes to ending serious injuries and fatalities in our cars. And while a speed limitation is not a cure-all, it’s worth doing if we can even save one life.”
Speed limiters already are used on some trucks and buses but are not common among private vehicles. In recent years, various proposals for using the devices on heavy commercial vehicles have been floated. Ford also has introduced technology that allows parents to restrict the speed of cars driven by teenagers.
Though Volvo’s brand is closely associated with practical performance, high safety standards and suburban families, the company’s S90 sedans and V90 hatchbacks can break 150 mph, according to the manufacturer’s specs.
Volvo’s speeding cap remains well above the top speed limits in every U.S. state, most of which limit maximum speeds to between 55 mph and 75 mph on urban interstates, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Highway Loss Data Institute. Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada and South Dakota permit speeds as high as 80 mph on rural interstates. In Texas, the number climbs to 85 mph.
People simply do not recognize the dangers created by high speed, according to Jan Ivarsson, Volvo’s deputy director and senior technical adviser on safety.
“As humans, we all understand the dangers with snakes, spiders and heights," Ivarsson is quoted as saying in Monday’s statement. “With speeds, not so much. People often drive too fast in a given traffic situation and have poor speed adaption in relation to that traffic situation and their own capabilities as a driver.”
Above certain speeds, the company claims, even the best designed vehicles with the latest in-car safety technology are no match for a bad traffic accident.
Though speed limits exist in countries around the world, experts say, driving too fast remains one of the most common causes of traffic fatalities.
Despite advances in safety technology and widespread campaigns to discourage drunken driving end eliminate texting behind the wheel, U.S. traffic fatalities rose significantly in 2015 and 2016 before decreasing by 2 percent in 2017, according to the Transporation Department.
In 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 37,133 people died in motor vehicle crashes, DOT statistics show. Speeding killed 9,717 of those, 26 percent of all traffic deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Volvo said limiting vehicle speed is just one way to reduce injuries and fatalities in its cars. The company said it is also investigating how a combination of smart speed control and geofencing technology could automatically limit speeds around schools and hospitals in the future. Geofencing uses GPS to create a virtual perimeter that controls how technology operates in a particular real world area.
The company did not respond to a request for more information about how this technology might be implemented or who would control its use.
Jessica Caldwell, the director of industry analysis for the auto research website Edmunds.com, said Volvo’s decision to limit its vehicle’s speed is part of a broader industry trend toward improving vehicle safety by removing human decision-making from the driving experience as vehicles become increasingly autonomous. Other examples of this shift, she said, are lane-assistant warnings, radar and cameras that help drivers account for blind spots or that automatically reduce speed when a vehicle is approaching an obstruction.
Because Volvo owners typically live in congested urban areas where speeds rarely top 50 mph, Caldwell said, most divers probably will remain unaffected by the company’s new speed cap.
“We’re not talking about limiting the speed of an exotic car like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, where track driving might be something that an owner would want to do,” she said.
But Caldwell said using geofencing technology to control vehicle speed raises serious questions about how drivers might be affected. With a rash of emergency rooms around the country closing, she said, making sure the technology is fused with up-to-date information would be crucial.
“This is a little big brother-ish,” she said. “Is the technology going to limit your speed even if the hospital has closed? And how far away from school or hospital will the geofencing kick in?”
“God forbid you’re in a situation where you need to get to a hospital quickly and this system slows you down,” she said. “I’m thinking about women giving birth, for example.”