New technology that automatically adjusts car's speed to limit could save lives on Irish roads
The latest European Commission report on motor safety wants several technologies as standard on new cars to bring down the number of road deaths as soon as possible.
It aims to have intelligent speed adaption, lane-keep assistance, driver drowsiness and distraction monitoring, mandatory within the next five years too.
The findings prompted me to re-visit one key piece of technology I tried and tested last year. It is called Intelligent Speed Assistance (ISA), and there was quite a buzz about how many lives it could save each year, because, in essence, it automatically slows the car to the prevailing speed limit. That's the theory. But what was it like in practice?
Here's how I got on as I drove a Ford S-MAX with the ISA technology on board, around west Dublin and Mondello.
Even though I was nearly flooring the accelerator, the car remained steadfastly inside the 50kmh speed limit. Given the press I had on the pedal, I should probably have been doing 100kmh.
But the car didn't/wouldn't budge above the limit. And that was thanks to the ISA technology, that safety experts estimate could reduce serious accident numbers by 30pc/50pc. Had I seriously wanted to override the ISA, I would have had to hammer my foot down on the accelerator. Which means, I would really have intended breaking the limit - no excuses.
If I approached a higher speed limit than the one I was in, the car quietly moved up and held it there. For example, on one stretch I went from 50kmh to 60kmh to 80kmh and back to 50kmh. I did everything to disrupt it, but it was street legal all the way.
How does it work? A small camera high up on the windscreen catches the speed limit sign. Immediately, the technology adjusts the amount of fuel and power going to the engine. That is how it maintains speed. Critically, it does not apply the brakes; it adjusts power at source.
It works in tandem with a sat-nav speed system too - which is a plus on country roads, where there may not be too many signs.
The technology and its potential safety benefits were centre-stage topic at a major Road Safety Authority conference on speeding in Dublin last year, as part of a Euro-wide campaign to have it standard on all new cars within a few years - as I mentioned at the outset.
Unfortunately, it costs; and in Ford's case, comes with top-of-range Titanium spec on the S-MAX people carrier. They reckon it would cost more than €600 to have it on lower-trim Zetecs, for example, because technology such as Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) would have to be fitted.
International expert, Prof Oliver Carsten, of the Institute of Transport Studies in the University of Leeds, has pressed the EU to adopt the technology to save lives and serious injuries. He travelled with me for a while as we put the system through its paces.
A few years hence, he reckons, the cost of fitting it as standard will be "close to zero". He said: "We already have the camera and the technology. It is just a matter of tweaking it." And he foresees a time when no car will get five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests without ISA.
But we had one glitch in our drive. For one 30kmh zone into a Tallaght estate, neither camera nor sat nav managed to pick up on the speed sign. I tried it several times.
I suppose it was inevitable that one or two tiny glitches would arise. But in the main, I have no doubt that ISA works. Now let's get it saving lives.