Speed Governors

Lost to history, rediscovered on your phone

The first time I drove on the highway, I immediately noticed the high-pitched whine of the tires. The pitch got higher as I sped up. For a few days, it seemed like I could use my ears as a speedometer and keep my eyes on the road. As I got more comfortable at high speeds, road noise faded into the background. I glanced at the speedometer a lot—too fast and I'd lose my beginner's license; too slow and I'd be a hazard.

A few months later, I got to try cruise control, and it solved half of the problem. No worries about going too slow, anyway. Cruise control sets a minimum speed, so you can still use the gas pedal to go faster temporarily. It made me wonder—why can't we have speed control in the opposite direction? What would you even call a device which enforces a maximum speed but lets you drive slower? Years later, I found the answer in Tom Vanderbilt's excellent book Traffic (2008), and more details in Fighting Traffic by Peter D. Norton (2008).

The device is called a governor, and it was invented at the dawn of the automobile era. Why can't we have one? It was the subject of a fierce political battle which came to a head in Cincinatti in 1923. Outraged by the brand-new menace of traffic deaths, citizens put a measure on the ballot which would require a governor (set to 25 MPH) on all cars in Cincinnati, via a petition signed by more than 10 percent of the populace. A coalition of manufacturers, dealers and auto clubs fought back, joined by the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce and much of the press. The measure was defeated, and the winning coalition founded national institutions to stay vigilant. The message was clear—anyone who proposed a governor would face the wrath—so no-one has.

But if I can't have a governor knob built into the car, why not go back to plan A? Well, road noise didn't help much when I got a speeding ticket. Watching the road, listening to loud music, I couldn't hear the tires if I had wanted to. Even then, I don't have perfect pitch, so I'd still have to look at the gauge periodically. The answer, I realized, was to keep playing loud music, but link the music's tempo to the car's speed.

Want to try it? Have a phone with GPS? Point it at https://mandelics.com and pick "I Can Drive 55," which plays Sammy Hagar's famous song as fast as you can drive it. Or pick the "Beat Governor," which lets you build a beat (basic sampler/sequencer) then play it back proportional to your speed. You can lower the target MPH for city driving, or for bicycle or jogging use.

— Christopher Nicolai mandelics.com