Volvo has had it up to här with drivers. The Swedish carmaker has spent decades building a reputation based on safety (and low-key luxury), but humanity’s taste for speeding, distraction, and impaired driving remains a threat no airbag, semi-autonomous system or moose-detection system can neutralize. So this week, Volvo announced a raft of potentially controversial initiatives that will help deliver on its Vision 2020 goal—no more deaths or serious injuries in its new cars—by making its customers behave.
After announcing a few weeks ago that it will limit the top speed of all its new cars to 112 mph, Volvo will roll out efforts to eliminate impaired driving, keep young drivers in check, and help its competitors benefit from its years of safety research.
Improving driver behavior hinges on knowing how the driver is behaving, so Volvo—at an event also marking 60 years since it introduced the three-point safety belt—will start putting inward-facing cameras in all its cars. These will point at the driver, running their images through algorithms that consider eye movement, posture, steering and braking reaction times, and long term patterns.
If the car detects signs of inattention or impairment, it will issue progressively escalating alerts and even physically correct the vehicle’s driving. It might reduce its speed, trigger a friendly call from Volvo’s On Call service, or stop itself altogether, even if the driver resists its moves. (For those with privacy concerns, Volvo says its cameras won’t store images, but rather will analyze numbers and data generated by those images while driving.)
The challenge here is to design systems that properly interpret how people are driving, and that owners won’t use as a backstop for their own distraction or inebriation. “Overreliance is a very real thing,” says Malin Ekholm, who runs Volvo’s Safety Center. She cites drivers who got more aggressive when they got cars with antilock brakes and all-wheel drive. The trick is finding the balance between helping its customers stay safe and making them complacent about their role. “Our systems need to be there for you when you need them, not for you to use them,” she says.
To address the speeding question, Volvo has created the “Care Key,” a fob that allows owners to set limits based on who’s driving. It will become standard in all Volvos with the 2021 model year. But it’s the built-in 112 mph cap that’s more likely to rile up freedom-minded drivers. Volvo acknowledges that few accidents occur at such outlandish speeds, but CEO Håkan Samuelsson says a limit will get the public used to the idea and pave the way for future technologies that can selectively cap speeds automatically, based on local laws or around places like schools and construction zones.
If you’re going to cap any driving population’s speed, Volvo owners are a pretty safe bet. The company’s North American head, Anders Gustafsson, acknowledges that his customers “have a certain DNA”; they gravitate to the brand for its safety-first attitude. And Samuelsson doesn’t seem to mind losing certain buyers. “We want to attract people who think it’s important to drive safely,” he said. “Limiting it to 112 mph would of course discourage the boy-racers from taking up the brand, and I think that’s rather good. Besides, the guys who love the eight- and six-cylinder engines—we probably have already lost them anyway.” (Volvo, like other automakers, has embraced the turbocharged four-cylinder engine, along with more electric and hybrid models.) That said, Gustafsson doesn’t expect to sacrifice performance. Torque and horsepower still appeal to drivers, and good acceleration can be a safety feature when you’re trying to shoot past a semi swinging into your lane on the freeway.
To cap it all off, Volvo will allow other carmakers and research entities access to the data it has been collecting since 1970, via a new digital library. This includes studies that have in the past helped refine whiplash protection strategies based on differences in neck strength between men and women, and improve side-impact injuries through inflatable curtain airbags. More recently, the research has helped Volvo develop spine-protecting countermeasures for run-off road injuries, including an energy absorption strategy in seats.
The bigger point is that Volvo’s leaders think their customers and reputation make them well-positioned to lead such safety initiatives, even those that may put off some drivers. But Samuelsson doesn’t think Volvo will stand alone for long. “I will be very surprised if all cars didn’t have speed limiters in five years’ time,” he said.
Barring a major regulatory change or philosophical about-faces from the folks running Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Lamborghini, and Ferrari, that’s not gonna happen. But it’s not stopping Volvo from racing toward its own finish line, and hoping everyone else follows behind.
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