New Ford Minivan Won't Break the Speed Limit

<b class="credit">Ford</b>The new Ford S-Max, a European model related to the Fusion sedan, includes a system that reads speed-limit signs and keeps the car from going faster.
FordThe new Ford S-Max, a European model related to the Fusion sedan, includes a system that reads speed-limit signs and keeps the car from going faster.

Would you buy a Ford (F) that always obeyed the speed limit -- whatever it was?

Buyers in Europe will soon have a chance to do just that. Ford says that its S-Max minivan will be offered with an Intelligent Speed Limiter, a system that reads road signs -- and limits the car's maximum speed accordingly.

The Car Knows the Speed Limit, and That's How Fast It Goes

Ford says that its new system combines two other systems already available on a few Ford models in Europe -- an adjustable speed limiter that can be set manually by the driver and a system that reads and understands certain types of road signs.

The system is set by the driver, and it can be turned on and off. When it's on, the system automatically slows the car down whenever the speed limit changes to a lower limit, and it won't let the car accelerate past the speed limit under most conditions.

Ford says that even when it's engaged, the driver can temporarily override the system by "firmly depressing the accelerator pedal" -- to pass a slow truck, perhaps, or to merge safely on a highway.

But Will Anyone Want a Speed-Limiting System?

Ford thinks that the system will appeal to some European customers, particularly those who may drive to other countries regularly.

It may sound to some Americans like a crazy idea. But in Europe, where there are lots of automated camera systems that record speeders' license plate numbers and mail them tickets, and where drivers often drive across national borders, into countries with unfamiliar speed limits, some may find it to be helpful.

The speed-limiting system isn't coming to the United States, at least not yet. Ford's road-sign recognition system is designed to work with the European road-sign standard, which is different from America's. But it could be adapted to the U.S. standard as well in time.

If so, it wouldn't be hard to integrate it into American Fords. The S-Max is a midsize minivan that is made only for the European market. But the new S-Max shares many components under the skin with the Fusion sedan that is familiar to Americans. It probably wouldn't be very hard for Ford to add this new system to a Fusion, or to other U.S. models -- if there was demand for it.

That seems unlikely. But this is just one of a slew of new systems that have come out of Ford's research into self-driving cars.

Parts of Tomorrow's Self-Driving Cars Are Coming to Market Now

Ford says that it has no plans to launch a self-driving car anytime soon, and its executives have hinted that the company will take a wait-and-see approach to the idea. But Ford and its suppliers are still working on the idea, and that work has yielded a number of new safety systems.

Many of those systems are already offered on Fords here in the United States. Like other automakers, Ford offers active cruise control, lane-keeping systems, and parking-assist technology on several of its Ford and Lincoln models here in the U.S. and elsewhere. Anyone who has shopped for a new car recently has probably encountered similar systems.

Individually, each of these is a more-or-less useful safety aid. But taken together, with some smart software, they could be (and probably will be) key components of a self-driving car in the near future.

Or put another way, some big parts of that future are already here.

Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, and check out our free report on one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.