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Phil Covington headshot

Volvo Capping Cars’ Top Speed at 112 MPH - Does it Make Sense?

By Phil Covington
To burnish its already strong reputation for automobile safety, Volvo will cap its vehicles' speed limits by 2020. But is this a PR stunt or giant step ahead for public safety?

To burnish its already strong reputation for automobile safety, Volvo will cap its vehicles' speed limits by 2020. But is this a PR stunt or giant step ahead for public safety?

Swedish automaker Volvo announced last week that as of next year, the company will limit the top speed of all their cars sold globally to 180 kilometers per hour (or approximately 112 miles per hour). This is part of the company’s Vision 2020 initiative, the goal of which is for no one to be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020.

According to the company’s press release, research done by Volvo finds that speed is a prominent gap in their ambition to completely end serious injuries and fatalities, highlighting that 25 percent of all 2017 traffic fatalities in the U.S. were caused by speeding.

A focus on vehicle safety is on-brand for Volvo, whose history of industry firsts makes for an impressive list. For example, in 1959 Volvo was the first car manufacturer to fit three-point safety belts as standard to its vehicles, and the company was also the world’s first car maker to put side-impact airbags into production.

Furthermore, this step to increase safety fits in nicely with one of three corporate responsibility pillars that Volvo has long espoused: its “role in society.”

To that end, Volvo’s president and chief executive Håkan Samuelsson says speed limitation is worth doing, “if we can even save one life.”

Limiting top speed is not unprecedented, however. For some time, German auto manufacturers, BMW, Mercedes and Audi, have had what is described here as a “gentleman’s agreement” to limit the top speed of their cars to 155 mph. The agreement was officially reached in order to reduce fatalities, but the suggested real reason was to appease German politicians who were angling for speed limits on the country’s famously speed limit-free autobahns.

Similarly, as long ago as the 1970s, the car industry in Japan self-imposed a speed limit, also like Volvo’s, of 180 km/h, on all cars sold within the country’s domestic market, a limit that still stands today. Though this came into effect to address lawless speeding, it’s not entirely clear, according to this Japan Times article discussing how the industry arrived at this particular top speed limit - though it’s suggested this was as fast as most Japanese cars could go at the time.

Volvo doesn’t explain why the company picked 180 km/h (112 mph) for their self-imposed top speed limit either, but it’s still plenty fast enough. It’s close to 50 mph over the 65 mph speed limit imposed on many United States freeways; and if you are caught going this fast, you’d likely have your license suspended at the very least. Furthermore, you’d still not be guaranteed to walk away, or even survive an accident at that speed. So is it a significant step in practical terms?

Already, the move has been criticized by some as a public relations exercise, arguing Volvo has picked a limit that has no real logic to it. Still, whatever reason the company settled on 112 mph, perhaps it’s a line in the sand and good a place to start. It is certainly safer than driving at 155 mph; just consider the fact that energy is proportional to speed squared.

Indeed, limiting speed is not the company’s end-game. Volvo says in the March 4 press release that they want to start a conversation about whether car makers have an obligation to install technology that changes driver behavior, indicating that further to implementing a top speed limit, the company wants to take a leadership position with regard to other safety technologies.

For example, Volvo is looking into implementing smart speed controls in the future, whereby geofencing technology could automatically limit speeds around schools and hospitals - environments where excessive speed is particularly hazardous. In addition, Volvo says it will present ideas to tackle the problem of intoxication and driver distraction at a safety event in Gothenburg, Sweden on March 20th.

Of course, Volvo isn’t unique in employing driver assistance technology to enhance safety. Most manufacturers now offer aids on higher specification models such as lane departure warning and rearview blind spot detection, while some car makers employ technology that will automatically add braking force if a driver isn’t reacting appropriately to a hazard ahead.

That said, limiting all cars sold globally to a top speed as 112 mph is an industry first as far as we can tell and maybe Volvo risks some sales by doing so. Some customers may choose the 155 mph German alternatives to a speed-restricted Volvo, since it may be seen by some as a big-brother approach they would prefer to do without.

However, maybe because Volvo’s historical brand identity has been built around safety, the company figures their typical customer will be happy to see them take the step on limiting the top speed. After all, they will be limited to a pace which remains a fairly generous one in any case.

Image credit: Blondinrikard Fröberg/Flickr

Phil Covington headshot

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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