Cap 112 (180)

Sitting comfortably? Buckled in safe? Then we’ll begin…

(c) Drivingtorque.com

Since its inception in 1927, Volvo Cars has given the world a lot to think about. At least as safety-focused as Mercedes-Benz (but with added acronyms), 1959 saw the Torslanda-based car firm installing front seat three-point safety belts as standard, allowing free use to any other manufacturer, not that many took up the initiative.

A concerned friend of mine once amassed a comprehensive file of seat belt data, weighing up the pros and cons from dozens of firms back in the early 1960s. After weeks of cogitation, he spent a weekend fitting Irvine belts (initially a parachute manufacturer) to his Morris 1100, which gave sterling service. The file carried weight – influencing one of his employer’s directors to choose Kangol belts (dyed red) for his Alvis 3-litre. Volvo, rather admirably remind us of who brought the belt to (mass produced) life – Since 1959 is stamped into the buckle.

(c) Media.vovlocars.com.

A smattering of those acronyms for you now: thirty years have passed since SIPS (Side Impact Protection System) arrived and by 1994, the SIPS airbag was installed in the 850 model. 1998 saw WHIPS, for Whiplash Protection with a total redesign of seat structure. Four years later, we had IC, Inflatable roof Curtains, and four years thence, a gyro sensor was fitted to detect and deter rollover accidents, Rollover Stability Control (RSC).

2003 brought about IDIS, a (clearly archaic, now) early driver assistance system, hot on the heels of BLIS, for those tricky front end Blind Spots. Twelve years have flown since City Safe, the autonomous braking system to avert those low speed fender, fetlock and effing expensive prangs, became standard. Re-imagined now to detect cyclists, animals, jaywalkers – even in the dark.

But of this moment in 2020, every new Volvo has a built in cap – neither baseball nor flat, but a speed limiter – electrically governed to 112mph (180kph.) With the obvious German exceptions (de-restricted sections of autobahn), this is still way faster than any countries designated speed limits. Do Volvo drivers not speed?

Malin Ekholm. (c) Media.vovlocars.com.

Malin Ekholm is head of Volvo’s Cars Safety Centre, and she argues that while 112 is still fast, this measure won’t prevent speeding. “Many of our customers choose Volvo for safety reasons but”, she points out “we want to show we’re serious about speeding.” One can’t help but think the Swedes are acting Big Brother, especially when Ekholm mentions the imminent future of cameras to monitor cognitive behaviour.

Throw in tiredness and anti drink-drive sensors and suddenly all those bells and whistles might prevent that early morning airport dash you’d planned. Ekholm retorts with “we want to focus your mind on driving and have the ability to re-focus your attention back to the road and away from extraneous distractions.

In the June 2020 Autocar interview she does make some good points, but cynicism about the Swedish brand’s new safety stance remains. A large attraction of the motor car stems from the foot down, speed towards the horizon, kiss that apex and power on to the next, glorious radius, feeling. But our modern world increasingly demands so much of us – what chances do we get to drive this way when distractions arrive thick and fast. Even the most diligent of drivers, though never admitting to it, will have lost focus whilst on the highway.

Be it a piece on the news, social media, an argument in the car (or phone), missing that junction, that gorgeous creature on the opposite pavement; all of this at once while keeping to the speed limit, avoiding the bus/ van/ idiot in front who has stopped for no damn reason. That split second, slow speed distraction could impose as big an impact as entering that bend too fast. Can VAR (or some suchlike) detect all that?

Many attributes of driving are down to trust, yet speeding is by far the most committed crime. Many people still see rules as there to be broken and no matter if you’re lucky enough to be driving a McLaren P1 or any its ilk, there will always be somebody who wants to get past you. Trucks have had speed limiters for years and we’ve all witnessed the centimetres gap between them on motorways.

(c) Dreamstime.com.

Cars are different though: who drives consistently above their country’s national speed limit these days? With detection becoming more covert, not to mention financially punishing, road surfaces becoming ever more pockmarked, coupled with all those bloody distractions, where can you exceed 112 mph (180kph) with any modicum of tranquillity?

Has Volvo made the correct decision then? That question is difficult to answer. Good on them for trying something, but will others follow, seeing as the dread day of fully automated driving is swiftly closing in? In some ways, I’d embrace a self-driving car, allowing you to eat breakfast or read some reports on the way in to the office (I know some do already) or appreciating without distractions Elgar’s Enigma Variations at speed yet comfortable in the cocoon of technological safety.

I aver however to being in control with foot and hand/ eye coordination, experience and that most peculiar of attributes, being human. Technology can be as fallible as any of us. Don’t strangle the car yet – on that front, there’s already more than enough legislation.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

25 thoughts on “Cap 112 (180)”

  1. My pet hate: nannying electronics in modern cars.
    In addition to permanent bell and gong noises accompanied by nonsensical messages my current Audi has something they call ‘pre sense’ that is using a camera to analyse traffic conditions. In case the electronics consider them dangerous the car makes terrible alarm noises and stabs on the brakes on its own. Where I live a lot of people take their C-19 home office time to have their houses rejuvenated which leads to lots of white panel vans parked everywhere and plumbers, electricians and painters walking around. When somebody is opening the rear doors of his Tranny, Sprinter or Multivan this silly system goes on full tilt very nearly causing a heart attack of the driver. You can switch off this system but only for the current drive. Once you re-start the engine you have to switch it off again.
    In the end you get a starting routine for a modern car resembling those of a helicopter.
    Press start button, switch off start-stop system, switch off pre-sense, from 2022 on switch off speed limiter, switch off all kinds of stupid alarms. After poking around in the MMI system for five minutes you finally drive away only to re-do all this a couple of minutes later after the first stop at the fuel station.

    When Volvo really wanted to increase awareness of their drivers they would do just one thing: make use of smartphones impossible while the car is on the move. This would be the single biggest contribution to traffic safety for years. My favourite would be a tension generator of an electric pasture fence connected to the heater mat of the driver seat, sending 40 kV through the driver’s bum in case he is not looking through the windscreen or reaching for his phone.

    In 2010 the Hessian High Administrative Court ruled that all speed limits in that German sub-state had to be checked for reasonableness and they set an astonishingly short time for this check. Within two months every second speed limit in Hesse was either abandoned completely or set to a significantly higher level.
    The road leading to FRA airport got limited to 100 kph in 1995 and after this enforced re-checking the limit it was fully de-restricted again.
    What crime did drivers commit who got caught speeding two weeks before the limit was abandoned? Were they driving too fast when an official investigation showed that the speed limit was unnecessary? Or were they simply caught speeding (not following a rule that was faulty anyway)? Which shows what a lot of speed limits are: Gessler Hats.

  2. There is, I fear, a certain inevitability about speed limiters. Humans are by nature both lazy and easily distracted and thus inclined to show reluctance to either obey arbitrary rules or take responsibility for their own actions. Especially when sitting in the driving seat.
    I, too, enjoy driving for its own sake – as, I suspect, do most who enjoy DTW. But we are in the minority; hence the continuing development of devices to take over the task in the name of safety. There are unfortunate side effects of this progress, starting with seat belts: the driver whose passengers are all firmly held in their seats is free to leave braking until the last moment and slow less for corners. And don’t get me started on those who cannot drive anywhere without a small screen telling them where to go….

    1. Oh, and a word about speed limiters. I think they’re a great invention, as long as I’m in control and can set my own limit when I want it. Nothing worse than driving through a 30 km/h zone where inevitably one eye is always on the speedo because the limit is exceeded so easlily. With the limiter I can look wherever it’s necessary (I’m not thinking about phone screens here…) and still don’t have to fear about my licence.

  3. In my eyes, Volvo’s limited top speed plays in a somewhat different category than all the nanny electronics that are mentioned here. I loathe them just as much as everyone else here, and I’m glad I still have my C6 which has a minimum of those, and where the seatbelt warning can be permanently switched off (mind you, I did this, but I wear a belt whenever I drive out of my garage).
    The 180 km/h limit doesn’t harm anyone unless they want to burn ridiculuos amounts of fuel on German Autobahns without getting anywhere significantly sooner. In turn, the vehicles can be equipped with normal speed index tyres (especially in winter), and presumably it has an impact on the dimensioning of other parts as well.

  4. I always thought that the German “no speed limit” exception from the Fifties onwards was due to two main economic reasons: the first was to ensure quick connections within Germany so that business can flow.
    I personally remember at the beginning of the Nineties a trip The Hague-Munich in less than 5 hours aboard an A8, maintaining the given limit in the Dutch highway part.
    One foreman in construction work I knew in the early 2000 commuted every week between Rostock and Munich in an Octavia, starting on Friday afternoon he arrived home in the evening, driving of course flat-out.
    I can also remember another German workman in the Eighties driving weekly Bologna-Frankfurt in his BMW 524 tds: in those lucky times there were theoretical speed limits in Italy and Austria, but their enforcement was apparently a bit weak.

    The second reason descends from the first, and in my opinion it is one of the reasons why German cars have taken over the global market in the last fifty years.
    If you have unlimited speed on the Autobahn, you need to have a car which can withstand it.
    In other words, it must be “autobahnfest”, a very German adjective indicating that the car must endure to be driven flat-out for hours on the highway.
    I think this request, coming essentially from the customers, gave German cars a real technical advantage against cars built in other nations, which did not need that essential feature, and were therefore less sturdy.
    Same for brakes etc.
    In this regard I can remember a dispute in the Nineties about the first diesel S-Klasse, the 350 TD, which had unexpected Autobahn problems and was very quickly superseded by the 300 TD, which was “autobahnfest” unlike the predecessor.

    1. The relavant characteristic of a car in Germany is ‘vollgasfest’ – suitable for sustained full throttle use over long distances. Companies like Porsche got a lot of criticism because the 928 S4 was not vollgasfest, something that is not tolerated in any Porsche.
      I regularly do the trip between Lake Constance and Frankfurt over a weekend, last time was two weeks ago. My trip back to Frankfurt was at an average speed (calculated by onboard computer) of exactly 110 mph (176 kph) and that’s the kind of use German cars are made for.

    2. Dave, if I may ask
      Was the oiling(?) problem of the 4 valve 928 engine ever resolved by the factory?
      Thank you

    3. The 928 S4’s problems were caused by excessive amounts of oil mist/fumes in the crankcase and were supposedly cured by retro fit baffles/windage trays in the sump.
      What they never managed to cure were problems with individual examples consuming excessive amounts of oil due to problems with manufacturing processes for the etched bore surfaces.

  5. For me, the real issue in the nannification of modern cars is the misguided assumption that autonomous driving is the solution, and either wanted or necessary. Marketing departments seem to like it, but they like any feature they can name in advertising and apply a sales value to. In reality, autonomous driving systems are far too unreliable to operate like a human driver, even detecting road markings and edges very often being beyond them. Because of this failing there is an expectation that drivers remain alert and ready to takeover from a self-piloting car, but the history from auto-piloting Teslas show how this is simply neglected. There is good data that says most accidents involve a level of human misadventure, and whilst I accept that fact it misses the point entirely that for optimum safety the driver needs his head to be engaged in the process of driving. Accidents occur when the brain is not sufficiently stimulated and therefore attention drifts. What better way to promote this than getting the car to drive for you? An engaged driver is best achieved by having just the right degree of risk to keep things alert. That means one of the most important aspects is road design. A smooth, wide and clear road signals safety to the drivers sub-conscious. To regain a feeling of comfortable control the driver will naturally speed up to rebalance the risk and maintain his alertness. Urban areas benefit from narrowing of roads, and by levelling the height difference between road surface and pedestrian area. The driver unconsciously senses the increased risk and the speed naturally falls.

    Unfortunately, this approach is largely being ignored and manufacturers and governments seems to want to rely on the assistance system approach. Of course, technology suppliers and marketing departments are lapping it up.

    1. Was there ever a feature that was named and marketed with more criminal negligence than Tesla’s so-called Autopilot? People have died because they’ve thought it was more capable than it is. Should they have read the manual and learned more about the feature? Undoubtedly. Did they deserve to die and endanger the lives of others as a result of not doing so? No.

  6. How does one define ‘speeding’ ? Exceeding the speed limit ? Driving at a speed which is anti-social ? Driving at a speed which is dangerous for the conditions?
    My feeling about the myriad ‘safety features’ fitted to modern cars is that it encourages drivers to drive faster than conditions should allow, because they can mask the signs that the limits of adhesion are being reached. When the (German) traction control/ABS module failed on my Honda it became obvious that the car wasn’t as stable and ‘planted’ as it had seemed – it was just electronic trickery.
    My awful 1975 Marina, BTW, had better ergonomics and superior visibility to a modern Volvo.

    1. Even if I agreed with you (which is up for debate) I know which I would prefer to have an accident in…..

  7. The unlimited Autobahn in Germany was (partly) real until the 90s (on some forgotten parts maybe until around 2000), meanwhile it is just an urban legend. To find unlimited sections these days is like a scavenger hunt.
    And even we still would have unlimited speed, there would be nearly no chance to use it because of the amount of traffic we have now. To go from Hamburg to Munich as fast as possible, instead of driving constant 110/120, you probatly gain 20 Minutes at these 900 km.

    As far as road safety is concerned, it would have been better to make a metal mandrel in the same place as a requirement instead of the airbag. That would have brought the number of traffic accidents to zero.
    Thanks to the policy of “nannification” – a wonderful word, by the way – we now have vehicles that can withstand (almost) every accident. Nobody should be surprised that motorists behave as they do.

    Volvo has made the right decision because by limiting their products to 180 km / h they can save a lot of money for development and production. They were never bought by customers who bought a car as a penis extension anyway.
    But for me, Volvo was never a brand that I would have included in my purchasing decisions anyway, as its buyers have always been advocates of “nannification”.
    I never wanted to belong to this group of contemporaries. I was always, and still be, a representative of “do what you want, do not endanger other people, and take responsibility for what you do”.

    1. A customer of German Morgan importer Merz & Pabst once complained about the missing seat belts in their Plus8 demonstrator. Mr. Merz told him ‘in such a car you don’t wear belts, you die like a man.’

  8. I wonder what sort of speeds were envisaged by the German authorities when they decided not to impose a limit.

    The fastest I’ve ever been in a car was in Germany, at 240 kph (150 mph). The difference between our speed and those of vans and trucks was incredible. I must say it would have been reassuring to have had something like Car To X communication, as it would have made it less likely that someone could have pulled in to our path.

    As the journalist James May says, if you’re trundling monotonously along a motorway for a huge distance, you’re in the wrong vehicle. I wish we had something like Motorail, where you can put your car in a train, in the UK.

  9. You know, driving at high speed works wonderfully, as long as all drivers on the right line drive considerately – which means they use the rearview mirror. On a race track, in Le Mans for example, you have the same speed difference between the vehicle classes. But there are only professionals on the track. On the public streets you have to deal with the whole bunch of amateurs, reckless amateurs, everyone an egoist thinking he´s are the most important thing in the universe. So I can understand why politicians decide to limit the maximum speed, so that what is guaranteed to happen because of the egoists, at least it´s happens at lower speed.

  10. Good evening Andrew. I’m late to your interesting and thought-provoking piece today, and share others’ concerns that there are far too many distractions in modern cars. I agree that smartphones, hands-free or otherwise, should not be operable when on the move. Touch-screens can never replicate the tactile quality of physical switches and as screens become more complex and feature laden, are ever more of a distraction.

    The solution manufacturers seem to be pursuing to address drivers’ increasing inattention is to have endless nannying features telling us we’re exceeding the speed limit, drifting out of lane, too close to the vehicle in front, have a car in our ‘blind spot’ etc. etc. These are all things any competent driver should be capable of doing for themselves, otherwise, they shouldn’t be on the road.

    Fully-autonomous vehicles may eventually become a reality, but they will not be cars as we understand them. Sadly, they will offer no driving experience or pleasure. Enjoy it while you still can.

    1. In light of our general collective consensus on today’s subject matter, I now feel comfortable declaring my intense enthusiasm for the Gordon Murray T-50.

  11. My favorite safety innovation from Volvo has got to be the heartbeat sensor that appeared on the Safety Car Concept of 2001 and was then productionized in the second S80. It was marketed on the SCC as a feature to ensure distracted drivers don’t walk away from their car forgetting children and dogs in the back seat, but somewhere along the way they decided it was more useful as a warning that kidnappers and murderers could be hiding in your parked car ready to pounce.

  12. While I could not read the Autocar interview quoted, I believe the credit this time belongs to Japan, rather than Volvo. The same 112 mph (180 kph) limiter has been compulsory in the land of the rising Sun for decades on both cars and motorcycles. So to say – Volvo makes their Japanese-spec cars the new norm around the world.

  13. I am back to my old hobby horse: a car with as few features as possible but that´s possibly because I am interested in driving well and driving safely (and maybe listening to a bit of music).

  14. Mr Herriott, I quite agree. And with many other comments above, too.
    As for Morgan’s and “dying like a man,” I’d love to see the insurance report after that accident…

    1. Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it. He died as one that had been studied in his death to throw away the dearest thing he owed as ’twere a careless trifle.

  15. Morning Andrew
    Another very interesting article so thank you. I am intrigued by the SIPS image and the multitude of descriptions for steel strength. Unless you can tell me difference in grades I’m off to do some additional research…

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