Why Volvo’s Capping Top Speed at 112 mph: The Elusive Quest for Zero Deaths
Volvo is a company on a quest for zero deaths from its cars. Thus this week’s announcement that Volvo will cap the top speed of its cars at 180 kph, or 112 mph, starting in 2020. It’s a good thing to do for safety (probably) and it’s also a good marketing tool to help Volvo set itself apart from the competition.
Volvo says auto fatalities have three significant causes: speeding, intoxication (drugs as well as alcohol), and distraction. Volvo’s announcement this week tackles one part of the first issue (high-end speed) and hints there could be ways to reduce speed in special zones such as around schools or hospitals. Get ready to hear cries of “Big Brother” in short order.
Almost No Deaths or Serious Injuries Next Year
A decade ago, Volvo said it wanted to see zero deaths from its cars in 2020. As 2020 drew nearer, Volvo amended that to an even more ambitious goal:
Our vision is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car.
Håkan Samuelsson, president and CEO of Volvo Cars.
Already Volvo is one of the world’s safest cars, both because it is really safe, technically, and also because Volvo buyers may be self-selecting safety seekers, different from drivers who say, “Hold my beer and watch this,” or, “Does that thing have a Hemi?”
One example of Volvo’s passion for safe cars: Volvo’s front seats have crumple zones when the car goes (flies) off the road and lands hard. The seat mounts give a bit (crumple) when the car lands hard and that reduces the severity of spinal injuries. Volvo calls it run-off-road protection.
Was Top Speed Ever a Volvo-Buyer Concern?
First, let’s the say the obvious: A top speed of 112 mph isn’t going to much affect Volvo. In the US, 112 mph is way more than enough to get you into trouble with The Law. Anyway, it’s the BMW Club, Corvette Club, and Porsche Owners members who are doing track days and, yes, you can pull 120 mph or more on the longest straight. Volvo buyers are more likely headed to Draft Bernie meetings.
Okay, those who own Volvo Polestar performance models will be a mite miffed. Or maybe not. At the Geneva Motor Show the day after the Volvo-corporate announcement, Polestar division CEO Thomas Ingenlath said, “We obviously will not do that.” Ingenlath also noted that with EVs (Polestar’s direction), top speed is a lesser issue than with combustion engines.
There are speed-cap advantages you haven’t thought of: You can buy less expensive tires and still be safe when the engine limiter stops at 112 mph. A tire rated S is suitable for 112 mph / 180 kph. You don’t have to buy T (118 mph), U (124), H (130), V (149), W (168) or Y (186) rated tires that could cost $200-$500 when the S-rated tire is $125.
Speed Safety Isn’t Just Top-Speed Safety
We applaud Volvo’s move generally: 112 mph is fast enough for most people (just not you and me). But Speed Kills is overly simplistic. Volvo gave us the top lines only this week, and we know Volvo is more thoughtful and concerned than that. Volvo is planning a safety symposium March 20 in Gothenburg, Sweden, for deep thinkers, not just headline-seekers. It will focus on intoxication and distraction. Distraction, especially, is hard to quantify.
Here are some issues we know Volvo is aware of. These deeper concerns just didn’t make it into Volvo’s 13-paragraph press release.
It isn’t just high speed that kills. It’s also relative speed. Drivers traveling 50 mph on a 70 mph (posted) interstate are running 25-30 mph slower than motorists who are probably doing 75-80 mph. When the slowpoke cuts into the passing lane without checking mirrors (assuming he or she hasn’t been a left-lane bandit all trip), that slower driver is setting up a dangerous moment. It may be that slow speed leading to a high-speed differential is what’s dangerous. As Volvo’s Ivarsson says:
People often drive too fast in a given traffic situation and have poor speed adaption in relation to that traffic situation [emphasis added] and their own capabilities as a driver. We need to support better behaviour and help people realise and understand that speeding is dangerous.
Volvo, in the press release, quotes our (US) Department of Transportation: “Traffic accident data from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration shows that 25 percent of all traffic fatalities in the US in 2017 were caused by speeding.” Anytime you see a NHTSA statistic, you must ask: Do NHTSA stats add up to 100 percent, or to about 250 percentage points? Auto safety bodies love to declare that whatever they’re worked up about is the cause of an auto fatality, and they’re aided and abetted by police reporting forms that let cops check multiple causes of accidents. In one fatal accident, all these possibilities could be cited:
- Excessive speed
- High relative speed
- Drugs (it was one hell of a party)
- Failure to wear a seatbelt
- Bad weather
- Night conditions
- Poorly maintained roadway, faded signs, worn lane markings
- Oncoming car didn’t dim lights
- Construction zone
- Worn tires, bad suspension, bad brakes
- Parked car on the roadside, no flashes
- And etcetera.
It’s still true that when you hit something solid like a bridge abutment or an 18-wheeler on the breakdown lane, you hit harder at 70 mph than 50 mph (twice as hard, loosely speaking, in terms of the car’s momentum that rises with the square of the speed). And it’s also true that if the driver didn’t have a BAC of 0.15 (approaching unconscious), it wouldn’t have mattered if he was doing 80 in a 65 zone because he would have stayed on the road.
The Big Brother Stuff
Volvo, in its announcement, mused about what else automakers could do:
Apart from limiting top speeds, the company is also investigating how a combination of smart speed control and geofencing technology could automatically limit speeds around schools and hospitals in future.
This could be a good idea if statistics show there are currently more accidents near hospitals and/or schools. A lot of US schools already have cops directing traffic into and out of the schools. At many schools, speed is self-limiting because of the long line of XC90s, Escalades, and Highlanders picking up and dropping off their precious cargoes, as well as backed up onto the street.
This could be a bad idea if traffic safety experts and legislators in the guise of do-gooders decide to reduce the speeds around post offices, or YMCAs, or places where kids congregate (7-Elevens that sell Juul pods). In the early days of right-on-red, some mayors and police chiefs limited the intersections to a handful per town, thus wasting gasoline, increasing pollution, and adding (in a minor way) to cancer-causing air pollution.
If geofenced speed controls take effect, they might also be applied to highway construction zones. In an area with construction barricades and narrower 10-foot (instead of 12-foot) lanes, that might make sense. It would not in wide open areas that have modest road work being done, and then only 8-4pm weekdays, but would the geofencing be turned off the rest of the time?
Volvo is once again a major automaker. It suffered parental neglect under the ownership of Ford 1999-2010 and now is prospering under Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Geely wisely has kept Volvo a Sweden-based upscale company with a focus on safety. What Volvo is proposing now, in the form of top-speed caps about 30 mph higher than America’s highest posted speed limits, might lead to other automakers following suit.
For many drivers and for car enthusiasts, the concern might be that more-or-less sensible steps now by one automaker might – might – lead to overreaching down the road. It’s never too early to fan the conspiracy theory that the availability of Level 5 (the real thing) self-driving cars will lead quickly to a ban on humans driving cars. Never mind that for those who choose full autonomy, that may be the safest way to travel by motor vehicle.