In some new cars and e-scooters, it isn't up to you how fast you drive

Speed caps installed to improve safety

Getty Images via CNN

Vehicles of all sizes, from Volvo SUVs to 25-pound electric scooters, are forcing their drivers to slow down.

(CNN) - Vehicles of all sizes, from Volvo SUVs to 25-pound electric scooters, are forcing their drivers to slow down.

For years, drivers only had to fear the risk of a speeding ticket from an officer with a radar gun. Then came speed cameras that automatically mailed drivers tickets.

Now a new trend is emerging: Speed caps, in which a vehicle's software restricts an engine or motor from accelerating past a predetermined threshold, are being built into cars, e-scooters and e-bikes to improve safety.

Local governments and college campuses, from the District of Columbia, to San Diego and the University of Texas at Austin, are placing speed limits on rentable electric scooters and electric bikes, too. Vehicles that reach the cap plateau, and will go no faster. But some critics question if the caps are sensible and have warned of negative impacts.

Volvo, which invented the modern seatbelt in the 1950s, is pushing ahead with the caps as part of its 2020 goal to end deaths and serious injuries in Volvos. Earlier this month, the company announced it would electronically limit its new sedans and SUVs to drive no more than 112 mph. No other automaker has matched Volvo's speed cap pledge, but others have their own higher speed caps for other reasons, such as tires that aren't recommended to go above 130 mph.

"The higher the speed, the higher the energy in the event of an accident," Volvo said in a statement. "While capping the speed of our cars will not cure speeding, we have a responsibility to start a discussion about whether car makers have the right to use technology to alter consumer behavior."

It's also exploring caps to enforce lower speeds near schools and hospitals.

Road safety advocates, who for years have warned that speeding raises the same dangers as drunk driving, are heartened by the changes. However, they say there's still much work to do, such as convincing the public that speeding is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

"Nobody ever brings up speed," said Pam Fischer, a consultant who has spent much of her career in highway safety and is organizing a speed conference next month with the Governors Highway Safety Association and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"I say to people, 'What about speeding?' They look at me with blank stares," she said.

Most of the world's largest automakers, including Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, Honda, Kia and Tesla, declined to comment on whether they'd follow in Volvo's footsteps, with the exception of Nissan, which said it had no plans to follow suit. A handful cited existing limits. BMW and Daimler said they cap their vehicles at 155 mph. GM and Honda said that their vehicles are capped at speeds depending on what the tires on each model are rated for, but declined to state the exact speeds. Tire-speed ratings vary from below 100 mph to more than 180 mph.

Some critics question if a cap will improve safety. "A cap at that speed is meaningless," said Alex Engel, a spokesman for the National Association of City Transportation Officials. "A vehicle traveling 112 mph is incompatible with human life on city streets."

More impactful changes could be a few years away. The European Union is taking steps toward requiring intelligent speed assistance -- a technology that advises motorists of speed limits and may restrict them to it -- on new cars starting in 2022.

But perhaps the largest impact of speed limiting is already playing out in micromobility, a term for person-sized vehicles such as electric bikes and electric scooters that have become popular in the last year.

Governments nationwide say they're trying to figure out how to integrate the new devices into their neighborhoods. A number of safety issues have been raised, including improper parking and riding on the sidewalk.

The District of Columbia requires e-scooter companies offering shared devices to limit their speed to 10 mph, while electric bikes are limited to 20 mph. The county of Arlington, Virginia also limits e-scooters to 10 mph. Across the country in San Diego, the city expects to enact rules in July that will limit scooters to 8 mph in areas with large pedestrian populations. In a handful of areas, it will cap the e-scooters at 3 mph and require operators to send a text message to riders telling them to exit the area after renting.

However, scooter companies say speed limits can make it difficult for riders to keep up with the flow of traffic and may encourage them to ride illegally on the sidewalk, a location where they won't be surrounded by cars and trucks that move much faster. The companies prefer a speed limit of 15 mph.

The University of Texas at Austin has taken a nuanced approach. This week it began capping the vehicles at 8 mph in popular pedestrian areas on campus, but makes an exception on a road that runs through campus, San Jacinto Boulevard. Because e-scooters mix with cars and trucks, the university felt it made sense to allow the scooters to also go 15 mph, the road's posted speed limit.

The university said it may adjust the speed cap, depending on what it learns in the weeks ahead.

"Maybe it's 10 mph; maybe it's 9 mph. But for now, 8 mph seems like a good spot," said Bobby Stone, director of university parking and transportation services.

The university's approach relies on geofencing, in which computerized location technologies, such as GPS and Bluetooth beacons, are used to identify a scooter's location and adjust its maximum speed. Other techniques to limit micromobilty speeds are being developed.

At least one Silicon Valley startup, lvl5, is experimenting with using cameras mounted on the devices to identify sidewalks or roads with artificial intelligence, and adjust speeds accordingly.

Jonathan Freeman, a 66-year-old San Diego resident, worries the rise of micromobility will make sidewalks unsafe. He's organized a group called Safe Walkways that lobbies local and state legislature for regulations of e-scooters. San Diego has about 20,000 shared micromobility devices, according to the local government.

"We're all in fear of this coming summer when the tourists come back en masse, and we're inundated with more people misbehaving and using these vehicles inappropriately," Freeman said.

Nancy Fairfield, a 77-year-old San Diego resident, used to walk weekly with her friends on the boardwalk. They've moved their walks to the beach in the last year, given concerns about being hit by an e-scooter. She's not convinced the new regulations will be enforced and effective.

"Our city council doesn't have the guts to do anything," said Fairfield, referencing what she considers a long-running lack of boardwalk rules.

Bicycles are already allowed on the boardwalk, which adds to the traffic.

"We know there will be growing pains, but thousands of people are riding these things. Anytime we get somebody out of car and on scooter, that's better for everybody," said Greg Block, a spokesman for San Diego's government, who sees the devices as a good way to explore the city and limit traffic congestion.

Some road experts say addressing scooter safety needs to be part of a larger conversation about speed. Jurisdictions that have required electronic speed limits to be built into electric scooters and bikes haven't made the same request of shared cars.

Lime, a San Francisco-based transportation startup that rents a variety of vehicles types, isn't required by law to govern the speed of its cars, the heaviest and fastest vehicles in its fleet.

"Your biggest threat as a pedestrian or bicyclist isn't a scooter. It's a traditional car," said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, adding that there are about 10,000 speed-related car and truck deaths every year. "But for whatever reason these scooters and new mobility devices have drawn everyone's attention."

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