by Jeremy Cato

Gothenburg, Sweden – The trick for a small automotive brand like Volvo Car Corporation, says Paul Gustavsson, is “to create revenue from environmental and safety solutions.” In other words, remain profitable by appealing to upscale buyers who want “feel-good” solutions to the most troubling problems presented by owning and driving a vehicle, says the director of product planning and strategy at Volvo.

“Safety is a Volvo differentiator,” he adds, ticking off 13 new safety features Volvo introduced from 2000-2004.

Some perspective: from 1990-1994 Volvo introduced 15 new safety features. So the pace of innovation has about doubled in the early part of this year compared to the 1990s, “and it will continue to increase for the rest of this decade and in the future.” And what lies ahead? In a nutshell, Volvo and other carmakers are working on technologies designed to save drivers from themselves – to take driver error out of the safety equation: with good reason.

Safety experts at Volvo and elsewhere say about three-quarters of all vehicle accidents are caused by driver error. Factor in accidents involving drunk or drowsy drivers – impaired drivers, in other words – and some 90 per cent of crashes are related to the poor performance of the driver.

Paul Gustavsson
Paul Gustavsson. Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

“Driver error is a major cause of accidents, though most accidents are also the result of a combination of circumstances,” says Jonas Ekmark, Volvo safety manager. “Active safety is about helping the driver.”

In fact for most of the last four decades – since seatbelts arrived as standard equipment – the auto industry and safety regulators have focused almost exclusively on so-called “passive” safety: devices and vehicle designs that protect occupants in a crash, to cushion the blow. As well, advances in computer technology, design and materials have also helped automakers create vehicles that bend, fold and crush in progressive ways intended to absorb and deflect energy away from the cabin’s so-called “safety cell.”

Everyone agrees that the auto industry has made remarkable strides in improving the crashworthiness of vehicles over the past 40 years. Typically, a passenger car today is capable of completely protecting occupants in frontal and side impacts of up to 55 km/hour, or more in some cases.

Now, says Ekmark, by “focusing on technologies to avoid crashes, we envision a world in which vehicles will not collide, or if they do, the force of the crash will be significantly reduced.”

Jonas Ekmark
Jonas Ekmark. Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

That is a pretty positive vision of the future, but also a challenging one. After all, how do engineers design systems that effectively help the driver avoid a crash and make them appealing to consumers? That is, make these systems both affordable and exciting for drivers of all ages, types, temperaments and incomes?

Then there are the legal issues. Obviously all auto companies are concerned with potential litigation if an automatic system fails, or allegedly fails, and an accident occurs.

Still, Volvo and most other companies argue that they have taken crashworthiness to a very high level. They say there are only minimal gains to be had in the future development of passive safety systems and in vehicle design in general – at least within reasonable economic bounds.

At German luxury maker BMW, for instance, vehicle safety director Josef Haberl says in the past 25 years dating back to when automakers and government regulators became very serious about safety, billions of dollars have been spent improving passive safety elements. Haberl estimates passive systems have reached a level of 95-100 per cent effectiveness.

He and others in the industry, including Volvo experts, argue that squeezing out additional small improvements in passive safety will use precious development dollars that could go to forwarding more advanced collision-avoidance technologies – active safety features.

Volvo, BMW and others believe research into such technologies as electronic stability control, lane departure warning systems and drowsy-driver mitigation will save more lives than any other approach to automotive safety. Haberl is not alone in pointing out the benefits of a host of new safety technologies now slowly making their way into mainstream vehicles:

  • run-flat tires that allow drivers to carry on even when a tire has lost all its air;
  • adaptive headlights that light up road ahead when a vehicle is cornering;
  • rain-sensing brakes that adapt braking force to slippery conditions;
  • active suspension and steering systems that help keep vehicles balanced in panic or emergency situations;
  • brake lamps that get bigger and brighter during panic stops.

Ekmark says his company is working on a system called Volvo CoDriver that helps the person behind the wheel cope with information overload stemming from the many and varied devices commonplace in today’s vehicles – from mobile phones (hands-free and otherwise) to navigation systems to elaborate entertainment systems. “Clever automobiles respond faster than normal humans,” he says, smiling.

CoDriver, for instance, manages a collision warning system with automatic braking that helps drivers avoid or at least minimize rear-end collision. Here’s how it works: If forward scanning radar and camera technology detects an impending collision ahead, the driver is warned 2-3 seconds in advance of a crash. The brakes are applied automatically is the driver fails to react properly. “This system,” says Ekmark, “happens only when a collision is going to happen. It’s like an air bag, in a sense.”

How valuable is this technology? Volvo’s own research shows that in 50 per cent of rear-end collisions, the driver of the car at fault did not apply the brakes at all. And a new study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that 93 per cent of rear-end collisions are caused primarily by inattention.

Volvo will also equip the next S80 with a Driver Alert System designed to warn drowsy drivers. “In Germany, 25 per cent of all accidents are related to drowsiness, says Ekmark.

Volvo’s system is similar to one Nissan is already selling with some models in the Infiniti luxury brand lineup. Infiniti includes its lane-departure warning system on its FX sport-utility vehicle and the M35 and M45 luxury sedans. Both the Volvo and Infiniti devises give a warning when they detect a vehicle drifting over lane markers – very often a sign of driver drowsiness or inattention.

“The system looks at actual driver behaviour, not bodily functions” such as fluttering or the closed or drooping eyes of the driver, he says. Like other manufacturers, Volvo considered a drowsy driver alert system based on reading eye functions, but quickly determined that eyeglasses would interfere with any device intended to read the driver’s physical condition – the condition of sleepy eyes. Studies have also shown that some people actually fall asleep with their eyes open; therefore eye function is not a reliable indicator of a sleepy person behind the wheel. “So we determined that a system that reads deviations from lane makers was best,” he says.

The next step for this technology is to incorporate automatic adjustments to steering and braking in a car that is drifting beyond the white lines. Nissan is already selling such a system on some models in Japan.

Another active safety feature being developed involves vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V communication. Ekmark, Haberl and many others point to safety gains possible with better V2V, although this promising technology needs the cooperation of governments developing roadways as well as the coordinated efforts of automotive suppliers and auto makers themselves. Ideally, though, V2V communication would allow vehicles to warn one another of an imminent collision ahead or other dangerous traffic situations.

Lex Kerssemakers
Lex Kerssemakers. Photo: Volvo. Click image to enlarge

“The next step is to go outside the car,” says Lex Kerssemakers, head of branding, business strategy and product planning at Volvo Cars. “Tomorrow’s cars will start to communicate with other road users. If we can do this so well that cars no longer collide and can avoid accidents involving other road users, we will be talking about a different kind of car than today. This would have a huge impact on the design. The car could be lighter and more efficient, which means less fuel consumption and lower tailpipe emissions.”

It is a very tidy vision. However, industry insiders believe V2V communication systems are far in the future due to the level of cooperation required between so many parties. Nonetheless, many in the industry remain hopeful.

In the meantime, this new era of safety features is likely to bring positive and unexpected benefits. How so? Consider the case of lane departure warning systems. University of Michigan researcher Jim Sayer said a study found that drivers in a vehicle equipped with a lane-departure warning system were 30 per cent less likely to dodge into the left lane without signaling, and 35 per cent less likely to make an unsignaled lane shift to the right. Apparently this device encourages wide-awake drivers to be more responsible behind the wheel.

So clearly there is a host of good reasons to move ahead with active safety technology. The challenge for Volvo, Nissan, BMW and others is to decide which ones to develop and when. As always, a critical factor is cost. That is, how much are customers willing to pay for these various advanced safety features?

Another issue for automakers is reliability and durability. Complex devices that break down will result in costly warranty repairs, unhappy customers and poor quality ratings in the many and very public consumer surveys published ever year.

Another somewhat related problem revolves around consumer education. Automakers who have bravely introduced advanced technologies in their vehicles in recent years have found customers become upset when they don’t understand and cannot easily operate the new devices. Case in point: BMW’s IDrive controller system. Ekmark concedes that with every new safety advance there also comes the big job of educating consumers on how it operates.

Information overload is another issue. As multiple driver-assistance systems come into being, safeguards need to included so the driver does not become confused by the array of systems warning of an impending accident.

In short, so-called “smart” cars loaded up with active safety features seem like an ideal way to eliminate traffic injuries and fatalities that result from bad or inattentive driving. And they are. But they also present a host of new challenges for the auto industry, its suppliers and dealers, and government regulators.

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