Stepping on the brakes

WHY KEI-UNSPLASH

Stepping on the brakes to slow down the car and avoid a speeding ticket may soon be a thing of the past. The Brussels Times of Belgium reported that the European Union was intending to require self-braking technology — also known as an Intelligent Speed Assistant or ISA — for all motor vehicles to be used on European roads starting July 2024.

In an article by Lauren Walker, she described the ISA as a technology that “detects the speed limit in force in the zone through which the car is traveling using cameras and sensors that work in conjunction with the vehicle’s GPS [Global Positioning System].” ISA technology, she noted, was first fitted on new vehicles in 2022, to help reduce the number of fatal accidents.

“Excessive speed is one of the main causes of road accidents in the European Union (EU), including in Belgium. Here, one in three fatal accidents is due to inappropriate or excessive speed, and the higher the speed, the more serious the consequences of a road accident. Police are increasingly targeting such behavior on Belgian roads with routine speed checks but more efforts are needed to reduce the number of accidents,” Walker wrote.

She added that ISA would activate when a vehicle goes beyond the speed limit in a particular zone, and give audible and visual warnings to drivers. But with the new mandate, the ISA system will be made more “proactive by [also] braking the car on its own.” This, she said, would be done “either by reducing the power available and/or by exerting a counterthrust on the accelerator pedal. The car will then push the driver’s foot gently back to make the driver aware and help to slow down.”

An advantage of a proactive self-braking system is that even when a driver is distracted or not looking at the road, or falls asleep, the vehicle automatically slows down based on speed limits and can perhaps even brake on its own when it detects another vehicle in front of it. While a collision may not be avoided, the damage from it can be minimized.

The disadvantages, however, is that the ISA can be “overridden by the driver by pushing the accelerator a little further,” Walker added, and that drivers can also switch it off. Moreover, the article quoted travel and mobility insurer Europ Assistance as saying that ISA would work only “when road signs are properly positioned along public roads and visible to all road users…[and] GPS data must be up to date, which can only be guaranteed when it is connected to the internet.”

And this is where technology begets more technology, otherwise it will not work. Speed-limiting technology is not something new, but it has always been a “warning” system more than anything that prompts driver intervention to slow down the vehicle. It was never self-braking — until now. Driver intervention was always necessary. The new Europe mandate, however, changes this.

But for the ISA self-braking technology to work, telecommunication and road safety infrastructure should also be improved not just in certain areas but in the whole of Europe. Otherwise, if car cameras cannot detect speed signs, or if internet connection drops, then speed zone detection is compromised. Another potential issue is the varying road traffic codes between regions.

And this is where the mandate may experience significant bottlenecks in the EU. How can car manufacturers be required to install a proactive ISA unless regulators can ensure that all road safety infrastructure and internet and GPS networks are all up efficiently working in the entire EU region? And, shouldn’t road safety rules be harmonized first for the entire union? Perhaps, self-braking technologies should be encouraged rather than mandated in the meantime?

ISA can also lull drivers into complacency as they rely on the ISA too much, compromising “defensiveness” in driving, thinking that the vehicle can slow down or brake on its own. But more important, I believe, is the issue of over-ride. Any system that can be overridden will have its share of abuse and violations, negating or mitigating its value or significance.

Take the case of requiring speed limiters for public utility and cargo vehicles. As early as 2016, given the number of accidents involving speeding vehicles, the Philippine Congress passed Republic Act 10916 or the Road Speed Limiter Act. This law required the installation of “speed limiters” that make noises when a public utility or cargo vehicle goes over the speed limit of up to 50-60 kilometers per hour.

These speed limiters, however, are not intelligent enough to slow down the vehicle or do self-braking. But they prompt the driver — through warning chimes — to slow down the vehicle by easing on the accelerator pedal or stepping on the brake pedal. Of course, the warning chimes can be easily ignored or overridden by the driver, making the speed limiter ineffective. Moreover, I am uncertain if the number of accidents involving speeding vehicles have gone down since 2016.

The EU mandate is ideal: it requires motor vehicles to use ISA that goes beyond warning chimes and can automatically slow down a vehicle based on regulatory speed limits per zone (school, residential, tollway, etc.). But this technology will work only when all vehicles are fitted with sensors and cameras that detect and analyzes road conditions, road safety signs, and other vehicles on the road, etc.

The Philippines is far from achieving this ideal. Requiring self-braking technologies is remote if not impossible here, considering that non-contact apprehension (NCAP) cannot even be implemented locally even if it has been widely used in the United States and Europe for decades now. Newer vehicle and road safety technologies — including NCAP — all require updated and effective road safety infrastructure. More important, they require a high level of driver education and maturity. All things considered, to date Philippine motoring is still in the Dark Ages.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council.

matort@yahoo.com