For more than four decades, Volvo has been an industry leader in providing innovative safety features that warn drivers of road hazards that can cause car accidents.
Now, with cars getting “smarter” every year, the Swedish automaker is stepping up its game, equipping its cars with radar sensors and cameras that help drivers “see what they can’t see,” warning of hazards ahead and slowing the cars automatically when needed.
"There were 35,000 U.S. fatalities on the roads in 2015,” said Jim Nichols, product and technology communications manager for Volvo Car USA. “That's unacceptable…. We feel that as a car maker, it's on us to do everything that we can to mitigate and prevent those accidents."
Volvo’s accident investigative teams have been researching the causes and outcomes of car accidents since the 1970s, Nichols said, and they found patterns in injuries and fatalities that led to the development of "city safety" technologies designed to prevent or mitigate accidents. Among them were systems designed to avoid collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists.
In a Volvo, Nichols said, radar detects a potentially threatening object ahead and activates a camera that takes a picture of it. The detection system then compares the picture to those in its database. If it determines that the image represents a threat, then "an audible warning will go off, and a row of red lights will light up the windshield" to alert the driver that “there's something that's about to happen.”
“We want to give the driver every last possible second to avoid the accident on their own," Nichols said.
At the last moment, if the safety system determines that an accident is unavoidable, the seatbelts tighten and the brakes are automatically applied.
"And that, of course, will either prevent the accident, significantly slow the vehicle down to mitigate the impact of an accident and, of course, prepare the passengers in the cabin for that accident occurring," Nichols said.
Volvo's accident avoidance system gives drivers a pre-brake and then ramps up to maximum brake pressure to stop the car, said Malin Ekholm, vice president of Volvo Cars, Safety Center. This enables the driver to maintain control for as long as possible.
If, for example, a driver wants to avoid rear-ending a vehicle by steering around it, "The car will utilize the brakes to get a differential braking to add momentum to avoid the car in front," Ekholm said.
Nichols noted that the car’s detection system can eliminate "false alerts" from stationary objects, such as a mailbox. "If there's too many false alerts, then people don't either trust the system or they'll want to turn it off.
"The driver is always in complete control and can override any of the systems at any time,” Nichols continued. “They are there as an aid to keep you safe. But if, for whatever reason, you wanted to overcome those systems, you as the driver have the power to do so."
But they shouldn’t be too hasty to go it on their own. Volvo's collision systems are responsible for a 40 percent reduction in injuries in car accidents, Nichols said.
But safety is global. Not everyone lives in a city. Whether a driver is behind the wheel in New York City, on a winding road in the forest or on "a lonely highway in the middle of a desert, we still have to be able to identify threats and keep drivers safe," Nichols said.
One of the automaker’s new tech advances is a system that detects deer, moose, elk and other large animals in rural areas.
"We're not adding technology because we like technology," Ekholm said. "We use technology to reduce and mitigate the accidents.
“It's not a technology race. It's about protecting people."