The feature, dubbed Intelligent Speed Limiter, made its debut last month on the Ford S-Max in Europe. It automatically prevents drivers from exceeding speed limits.
Engineers combined the functionality of two systems to create the feature, which enables drivers to manually set and adjust a maximum vehicle speed. A camera mounted at the front of the car recognizes and reads speed-limit signs along the rote, and adjusts the car's throttle accordingly.
The system does not apply the brakes. Instead it controls engine torque with electronic adjustments of the amount of fuel delivered. Drivers can temporarily override the system by "firmly" pressing on the accelerator, Ford says. It gives drivers some leeway, allowing them to choose a speed that's as much as 5 miles per hour above the detected limit.
No word from Ford on whether Intelligent Speed Limiter will be offered at some point on US vehicles, but Americans may make for a more reluctant audience.
Like its competitors, many Ford vehicles have possessed the ability to either read speed-limit signs via cameras or infer speed limits via GPS location data for a while and display it for drivers. Allowing those systems to take a more active role in regulating speed is, in some ways, a next logical step.
Those fundamental technologies proved "popular with drivers who want to ensure they avoid incurring speeding fines by unintentionally exceeding the speed limit," says Stefan Kappes, active safety supervisor for Ford of Europe. "Intelligent Speed Limiter makes that even easier."
It's important to note that using the system is voluntary, and may prove particularly popular with Europeans. Law enforcement officers have deployed more than 35,000 speed cameras across Europe, according to Ford, and some countries have reduced their speed limits.
Conditions in the United States are essentially the opposite. The number of speed-camera programs in the United States has remained flat at 139 for the past three years, and speed limits have broadly been rising over the past 20 years. A study released earlier this month by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety renewed concerns about the consequences of those faster speeds.
Increases in speed limits have contributed to the death toll on American highways, the study found, resulting in an additional 1,900 deaths in 2013 alone. IIHS says the increases have essentially canceled the number of lives saved by frontal airbags on an annual basis.
A Ford spokesperson says the company has no plans to bring Intelligent Speed Limiter to US vehicles, at least partially because the standards for road signs in Europe and America differ. Regardless, Americans may make for a more reluctant audience.
In a practical matter, driving only 5 miles per hour above posted speed limits, on many US highways, might make a car putter along at a dangerously slow pace compared to surrounding traffic. And as a legal matter, might it be incriminating if a motorist intentionally used a voluntary system to set their speed 5 miles per hour above posted limits?
Electronic data recorders required on all new cars already monitor speed data, and car companies are already collecting data on the habits and behavior of vehicle occupants. An active Speed Limiter provides yet another way for Ford, law enforcement or others to monitor driving behavior.
One system from one company deployed in a handful of models in one geographic area does not constitute cause for hysteria, but drawn to its logical conclusion, drivers can envision a day when insurance companies would either incentivize or require them to use such a monitor.
At least for now, the decision remains squarely within a driver's control.