Volvo has made a pretty bold statement this week. It says it wants to make things so that no one dies in a Volvo or because of a collision with one by the year 2020. “If you meet Swedish engineers, they’re pretty genuine,” said Lex Kerssemakers, CEO of Volvo Cars North America. “They don’t say things when they don’t believe in it.” A pretty serious lot it seems. People who say what the mean and mean what they say.
“With the development of full autonomy we are going to push the limits of automotive safety,” says Volvo safety engineer Erik Coelingh, “because if you make a fully autonomous vehicle you have to think through everything that potentially can happen with a car.” Elon Musk has said something similar recently. In his opinion, full autonomous driving is quite simple at speeds below 10 mph. It is not especially difficult on the highway where there is no cross traffic, no pedestrians, and no bicyclists.
Where autonomous driving gets really hard is in the city at speeds between 10 and 50 mph. That’s when autonomous software has to be able to distinguish between a cardboard cutout of a person and a real people. It has to anticipate all the things that people might do. It even has to know what to expect from someone who might be drunk or under the influence of recreational drugs.
Volvo’s safety systems will operate constantly in the background, monitoring the world around the car. It will identify bicyclists that may come flying unexpectedly through an intersection, a car that stops short ahead, or a pedestrian who is about to step off the sidewalk and dash in front of the car. In each instance, it will be able to bring the car safely to a halt in time to minimize injuries or avoid them all together.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recently completed a study of traffic fatalities between 2009 and 2012. It found there were 9 car models that were involved in no fatal accidents during the time. According to the Detroit Free Press, six of them were SUVs — the Kia Sorento, Lexus RX 350, Mercedes-Benz GL, Toyota Highlander, Toyota Sequoia, and Volvo XC90. The other fatality free models were the Audi A4 with all wheel drive, Honda Odyssey, and Subaru Legacy.
Volvo’s systems include adaptive cruise control to maintain a safe gap to traffic ahead, lane keeping ability, and pre-collision automatic braking. It also monitors for large animals in the road and for cars or people crossing behind the vehicle while backing up. One other feature that Volvo incorporates is a pedestrian air bag that deploys outside the car to keep a person on foot from being hurled against the windshield.
Zero fatalities is a lofty goal. As Tesla has discovered recently, people will do stupid things in spite of themselves. Tesla has needed to add restrictions to its self driving AutoPilot system after many people took videos of themselves behaving like idiots and posting the proof on line. The smartest computers in the world cannot account for every example of human silliness. But Volvo is trying.