Volvo's 112-MPH Speed Limit Is Pure Helen Lovejoy Virtue Signaling

Saving lives is a worthy goal. Doing so through empty gestures isn't.

volvo speed limit helen lovejoy
Volvo / The Simpsons Wiki

On Monday, on the eve of the Geneva Motor Show, Volvo managed to pull off something of a media coup: dominating the headlines without having a new car to tout. Even in the midst of an ever-more-hectic news cycle dominated by larger-than-life figures and brands, the company managed to score attention not just from automotive industry publications, but from mainstream media outlets ranging from Fox News to NPR. And all with a simple announcement: Starting in 2020, in the name of saving lives, Volvo would prevent its cars from ever going more than 112 miles per hour. 

It was a brilliant PR coup, sure to keep the carmaker in the front of everyone's minds even as the likes of Bugatti, Koenigsegg, and Lamborghini rolled out supercar after supercar with top speeds that, with Volvo's announcement fresh in mind, seemed almost irresponsible.

It's also a meaningless, empty gesture. 

Yes, speed can be dangerous. (Or, to be pedantic, losing it rapidly can be.) But 112 mph—or 180 kilometers per hour, as it converts to in smooth, Swede-friendly metric units—is an utterly arbitrary number to choose, one seemingly plucked from thin air. The press release makes no mention of why that specific speed was chosen, and lacking any insight into the company's thinking, it defies logic; after all, 112 mph is still a good deal faster than any governmentally-instituted speed limit on the planet. (And before you start giving me lip about the autobahn, the unrestricted sections, by definition, don't have a limit, and the rest is capped at 130 kph or less.) 

If Volvo were truly interested in keeping speeds down in the name of safety, why not limit them closer to the actual speeds that governments (attempt to) legally restrict traffic to? Why not, say, cap all its cars worldwide at 99 mph—the highest legal limit found on planet Earth? (It's in the United Arab Emirates, in case you were wondering.) Or, better yet, why not limit the vehicles to the highest legal speed in each specific country or region they're being exported to? It's not as though Volvo, like every global carmaker, doesn't have to tailor vehicles to their specific markets, for governmental and consumer-focused reasons alike; setting the on-board governor in every U.S.-bound Volvo to 85 miles per hour while locking it in at 120 kph for every Chinese-bound car seems like it'd be a cinch.

But the company didn't. Sure, Volvo said that it was investigating how geofencing could be used to tamp down speeds around sensitive sites like hospitals and schools in the future, and noted how "speeding remains ubiquitous and one of the most common reasons for fatalities in traffic" and how NHTSA data says 25 percent of U.S. traffic fatalities were caused due to speeding. But for the marquee figure, it still chose a random speed—one that's still fast enough to kill a human in a crash, whether they're inside the vehicle or out. 

Neither carmakers nor governments generally crash-test their vehicles at such speeds—why would they, when so few people drive that fast?—so there's little hard data regarding exactly what happens to the occupants of a vehicle that wipes out at 112 mph. The best evidence we have about the damage that occurs at a wreck at such speed comes from the British TV show Fifth Gear, which fired a car into a solid wall at 120 mph several years back. Granted, the show used a first-generation Ford Focus instead of a modern-day Volvo, but considering the amount of damage the Ford incurs, it's hard to see the argument that eight mph less would make much of a difference.

Indeed, Volvo indirectly touched on the limits of automotive safety tech in the very press release where it broke the news. "The problem with speeding is that above certain speeds, in-car safety technology and smart infrastructure design are no longer enough to avoid severe injuries and fatalities in the event of an accident," it reads. "That is why speed limits are in place in most western countries, yet speeding remains ubiquitous and one of the most common reasons for fatalities in traffic."

And yet, again, it bears repeating: Volvo's self-imposed "safety-minded" speed limit sits at 112 mph, 72 miles per hour faster than a vehicle in the IIHS's 40-mph frontal crash test or Euro NCAP's frontal impact regimen. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's frontal test runs cars at even lower speeds, firing them into walls at 35 mph.

In light of all this, it's hard not to read the entire press release as little more than virtue signaling—a exercise in trying to show off moral values that lacks real substance beneath its proud exterior. "It’s worth doing if we can even save one life," as CEO Håkan Samuelsson said in the release, is the sort of wave-the-bloody-shirt argument often touted by practitioners of such techniques. It's the sort of argument epitomized (and parodied) by the likes of Helen Lovejoy on The Simpsons, an overprotective buttinski of a character who aims to end any arguments against restrictive measures like Prohibition with the impassioned plea, "Won't somebody please think of the children?"

Ultimately, the move seems reminiscent of Volvo's 2017 announcement that all its cars would be "electrified" starting this year. That declaration also drew widespread attention in the mainstream media; it was also arguably misleading, as The Drive's own Lawrence Ulrich pointed out at the time, with many outlets claiming the carmaker would be phasing out internal combustion power altogether when the carmaker was referring to technology as simple as the mildest of hybrids. (Admittedly, the fault there lies with the news outlets, not Volvo, but it's not hard to see how a savvy PR department might have foreseen how the precisely-worded press release would be interpreted.)

"We want to start a conversation about whether car makers have the right or maybe even an obligation to install technology in cars that changes their driver's behavior, to tackle things like speeding, intoxication or distraction,” Samuelsson said. If Volvo is truly interested in getting a conversation rolling, we at The Drive welcome it. But if that conversation is more about appearing virtuous than finding a healthy balance between human safety and driver freedom, it ultimately won't be worth the pixels on a screen.