A Future Without Traffic Accidents?

In the quest for the ultimate vision of an accident free traffic environment, Volvo Car Corporation's short-term target is that no one will be killed or injured in a new Volvo car by 2020. "Zero is the one and only alternative for us. As the leader in car safety we can't accept that people are killed or injured just because they want to transport themselves from A to B," says Jan Ivarsson, head of Safety Strategy at Volvo Cars.

If we watched an aircraft crash it would be a disaster that we would remember forever. But when passing a traffic accident where someone may have been injured or killed people might be most concerned about the long queues. It is this attitude, that traffic accidents are an inevitable part of our daily lives, Volvo want to challenge with the vision. First of all, driving a continuous safety development towards zero accidents includes the challenge to answer the ultimate question: What is zero?

"Time after time we have seen the impossible disaster become a reality. This will of course also happen in a traffic environment that is considered accident free. But our aim is to come so close to zero that one single car accident is defined as a disaster, not an acceptable part of our daily lives," says Ivarsson.

Increased focus on preventing accidents
"In recent years, focus has shifted from protection to prevention and we are making continuous progress. New technology in Volvo cars such as Collision Warning with Auto Brake and City Safety can warn and assist you in difficult situations, in order to mitigate or avoid an accident. Our statistics show that we have reduced the number of severe injuries with approximately 50 percent since the 1960's," says Ivarsson.

Volvo Cars' strategy includes a broader view of safety than the traditional focus on accidents. The safety experts apply a holistic perspective where the safety aspects can be divided into five phases:

  • Normal driving. The driver is well informed and can stay alert.
  • Conflict. Technology helps the driver to handle the difficult situation.
  • Avoidance. The car acts automatically to avoid a collision if the driver fails to react.
  • Damage reduction. The car's safety systems help to reduce the crash energy in order to minimize the effect on the occupants.
  • After collision. The car automatically calls for assistance and facilitates the rescue work.

"The main challenge is to keep the driver in the normal driving mode. To reach our zero vision, we have to deal with most of the potential issues already in this stage, and preferably help the driver back to normal mode if a critical situation occurs," adds Ivarsson.

Intelligent warning and braking technologies
Modern Volvos can be equipped with a number of intelligent technologies that detect potential dangers and help the driver deal with them - either through a warning or, if necessary, by automatic braking.

"When you introduce an automatic system you have to make sure that you don't create a more dangerous situation than the one you want to prevent. It is not hard to make the car brake automatically. The challenge is to know when it must brake. The detection technology must be reliable," says Jan Ivarsson. He adds: "We prioritise the issues that are the most common and dangerous in real-life traffic. We have already introduced a number of preventive systems that detect moving and stationary vehicles in front of the car. Next year we will offer customers a new feature that detects pedestrians.

"Speaking" cars
In the future cars must be able to communicate and exchange information with the infrastructure and other vehicles on the road. In principle a future Volvo can "speak" to an oncoming vehicle, maybe communicating: "You and I are about to collide head on. If our drivers don't react we have to do something. Let's steer clear of the danger." The major challenge to make this scenario possible is to find a common language for the communication. A Volvo has to be able to communicate with vehicles of other makes and all vehicles have to be able to exchange information with the traffic environment. "We believe that the key is to use systems that are already available for other purposes. The air around us is already charged with communication, most of it used for pleasure or convenience. Adding traffic safety communication to this existing architecture is a far more sensible route than trying to invent and agree on a completely new "language" for communicating in the traffic environment," says Jan Ivarsson.

Co-operation with other players
The quest for an accident free future also includes a close co-operation with other players in society. Volvo Cars is working together with the Swedish Road Administration in order to promote the co-operation between vehicles and the infrastructure. "They also have a zero vision, so we have mutual interests. We are co-ordinating our efforts and research projects in order to maximise the results," says Jan Ivarsson.

Camera equipped Volvos in European field test
Volvo is also part of the European project euroFOT (Field Operational Tests). About 100 Volvo V70 and XC70 cars are equipped with technology that monitors the driver's behaviour. The aim is to gain more knowledge about how we react as human beings in complex traffic situations.

The cars are equipped with cameras that record the driver's head and eye movements, together with a data logger that records the information from the safety features in the car. Other cameras will film the driver's view of the road. The signals and the videos are saved on a hard disk from where the researchers can analyse the driver's head and eye movement patterns. "This helps us to better understand the interaction between driver, car and the traffic environment. The interface between human and machine (HMI) is one of our key research areas. All instruments and functions must be easy to understand and use. It is vital that new information and support technology in our cars is designed and co-ordinated in the right way. The information must help the driver without stealing attention," says Jan Ivarsson. He adds: "A couple of years ago, we introduced a basic information management feature, IDIS, that for instance blocks incoming phone calls when the driving demands full attention. Our aim is to refine the technology so it can manage information to fit each driving situation."