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Eye in sky plan to control UK cars' speed

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The British government's latest madcap scheme to sort out the country's transportation has been all over the press here today. The powers, in their infinite wisdom, have been part-funding a project to build satellite-controlled speed regulators that stop cars exceeding the limit.

The most disturbing thing about the scheme is that, although there's no certainty it will go ahead, quite a number of people seem to think it's a good idea. It's currently being researched at Leeds University in conjunction with the Motor Industry Research Association, and is intended to work as follows.

Cars get compulsory built-in electronics that use global positioning satellites to pinpoint the vehicle's location. This is then compared to an on-board digital roadmap which determines the speed the car should be travelling at. Then, if the car's going faster than this, petrol flow is cut to slow it down. Result - nobody gets to speed ever again. The devices are expected to cost around £200 and to be made compulsory over a period of about ten years. But it's fairly largely bonkers, isn't it children?

For starters they're doing it all wrong, and there are big holes in the way they're doing it. The speed map of the UK's roads could probably be kept down to a reasonable size, as it wouldn't need any more detail than precise road sections and their relevant limits. So it's really a database rather than a map. But as somewhere in the UK every day a road and its limit changes, the system also needs a regular update mechanism. British motorists however do already have access to traffic information services that use a combination of GPS and cellular, and it would probably make more sense to build on this to implement the service. Or alternatively, roads themselves could be fitted with limit broadcasters (Bluetooth, anyone?) which the cars could then act on without satellites or servers needing to be involved.

Here's another problem to be going on with though - how do you use petrol flow to regulate the speed of a particular car? It'll change depending on innumerable factors, so it can only work with vehicles that are already so heavily computerised they've got most of the necessary kit already built-in, or if you fit a feedback device that measures the speed and passes it on to the regulator in order to allow fine-tuning. Petrol flow and feedback device would however be relatively simple to bypass, and while it would be suicidal to break the system sufficiently for you to be the only one doing 90mph when everybody else was doing 70, would it be handy to be doing 75?

Which might help you out with another difficulty that occurs to us. Say you're travelling on a single carriage road with two-way traffic. The limit is 70, and you come up behind a truck doing 68. Your relative speed on overtaking is therefore 2mph, so in order to cover, say the 100 (relative) yards to overtake the truck you would have to be on the opposite side of the road, facing oncoming traffic, for getting on for two minutes. During this time you would have travelled rather more than a mile (relative to the Earth, as opposed to the truck).

As few roads in the UK are empty enough or straight enough for anybody to be able to do this, overtaking will become impossible/fatal, and the government will no doubt then begin scratching heads about why the number of head-on collisions has been climbing... ®

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