“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.”
There is one big caveat. If someone really wants to hurt themselves, or is just really, really stupid… well, Volvo can’t do anything about that. But, assuming you’re not a suicidal maniac or a total idiot, in four years, you’ll be safer driving a new Volvo than you are climbing a ladder to screw in a light bulb.
Fatality-free vehicles are not unprecedented. In fact, there already are some, and they’re not just Volvos. According to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are nine vehicle models — including the Volvo XC90 — in which no one in the United States died in the four years from 2009 to 2012, the most recent period for which data is available.
Volvo, still based in Sweden but now owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, wants to make this the case for its entire vehicle line up throughout the world. The automaker already tracks how many people die in its vehicles in order to monitor safety. That way, engineers can tell how much safer their vehicles become each time they roll out a new crash-prevention technology. That also helps Volvo predict how much safer its vehicles will be with each new advancement.
Ultimately, all these new technologies will be tied to together to create a car that can, literally, drive itself. In fact, a number of automakers, not not just Volvo, have promised to sell autonomous cars by 2020.
“With the development of full autonomy we are going to push the limits of automotive safety,” said 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.”
That doesn’t mean that drivers will necessarily have to use the car’s autonomous driving mode in order to be safe, though. Even when the driver is in full control of the car, these systems will still run in the background, ready to take over the instant there’s danger.
Most of the technology that’s required for autonomous driving is already available from Volvo and other carmakers. Here’s a look at the features that, when combined all together in one vehicle, will essentially make it crashproof.
Adaptive Cruise Control: Adaptive cruise control, which is already available on many new cars, uses radar and sometimes other sensors to detect vehicles on the road ahead. You set a maximum speed and then your car maintains a safe following distance on its own, operating the gas and the brakes for you. Some systems like this only work at highway cruising speeds, but many can work even in stop-and-go traffic.
Auto lane keeping assist: Cameras detect lane lines and road edges, and the car steers itself to stay in its lane.
Collision avoidance: Radar, cameras or other sensors detect obstacles ahead and warn the driver. If the driver still doesn’t react, the car can apply the brakes automatically to avoid, or at least reduce, the impact of a crash. In the United States, auto safety regulators have found this technology particularly effective in reducing crashes.
Pedestrian detection: Cameras, including ones that can see in the dark, are programmed to detect human forms that might wander into the path of the car. Drivers can be alerted and again, the car can brake automatically.
Large animal detection: Hitting a moose, deer or elk is definitely bad for the animal but it’s also very bad for a car’s passengers. Volvo has created a system that can detect when a big animal is walking in front of your car, saving both you and the absent-minded animal.