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Volvo's next step in car safety: Intervening in dangerous driving

Volvo hopes to tackle speeding, distraction and intoxication with tech.

Volvo crash test dummy

Twelve years ago, Volvo senior technical advisor for safety Jan Ivarsson announced Vision 2020. The bold plan dreamed of a world where, by 2020, nobody would be killed or seriously hurt in a new Volvo. Where do things stand today, with 2020 less than 12 months away?

At a presentation in Gothenberg, Sweden, on Wednesday, Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson said the limiting factor in any car maker reaching that ambitious dream is bad human behavior.

"We have done a lot with technical means, passive and active [safety] features in the car," he said. "But really to come down to zero [deaths] you have to tackle some issues that are much more human-related."

Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson announces plans to improve vehicle safety.


In other words, all the safety tech in the world can't save you from your own bad habits. Specifically, Volvo says that speeding drivers, distracted drivers and intoxicated drivers still make roads dangerous -- and that tackling those issues requires much more advanced moves than today's safety features.

Samuelsson sees the issue as a moral imperative to improve road safety. "Do we have the right to intervene, let the car intervene, depending on the ability of the driver? Maybe we even have the obligation to do so," he said.

The Volvo Care Key will allow parents to set limits on their teen driver's behavior.


The first plan of attack is speed. Volvo already announced its intention to limit all cars to 118 miles per hour and to allow parents to limit how fast their kids can drive. The idea is to send a signal to drivers that they need to keep to appropriate speeds -- especially, for instance, when in school zones or urban areas.

"The difference between 30 and 40 kilometers per hour [18 and 25 mph] can be the difference between an accident not happening and a tragedy," said Volvo senior technical advisor for safety Jan Ivarsson. "Those small infractions seem so trivial… [but] those speed limits are in place for a reason: to protect the most vulnerable people in society."

Eventually, of course, Volvo imagines that cars would automatically limit your speed in those types of areas. "Long-term, with new technology we'll probably have smarter speed limiters," said Samuelsson.

Cameras in the cabin of Volvo's next-gen cars will monitor the driver's eyes to see if they're drunk or distracted.


Reducing drunk driving deaths is another pole of Volvo's safety initiative, which it plans to tackle with cameras that automatically monitor if the driver is inebriated and potentially slow down the car. Again, Volvo sees it as a moral issue. "If we can stop someone driving when drunk, then I think we have a responsibility to," Samuelsson told journalists in a roundtable interview.

Volvo representatives declined to entertain the possibility of equipping future models with breathalyser interlocks. Instead, they noted that the camera-based system could detect many types of intoxication aside from just alcohol: drugs, legal or not, as well as medical emergencies.

"We're talking about intoxication generally," said Armin Kesedzic, Volvo product owner for vision sensors. "It doesn't have to be alcohol."

That said, Volvo doesn't want to accept too much responsibility in these cases. "We will not guarantee you are sober just because [our systems] say you are," said Samuelsson.

Those cameras will also watch the driver's eyes to ensure he or she is paying attention to the road rather than Instagram. With distracted driving on the rise globally, Volvo sees reducing driver distraction as an important way to reduce crashes.

"Our overall aim is to reduce accidents altogether, rather than just limit the impact of accidents," said Ivarsson. "We all know that life can get you distracted … It's called life. It happens."

So, how far along is Volvo in its progress toward Vision 2020? Well, first of all, the company emphasizes the "Vision" was just that: a vision that by 2020 it might be feasible to eliminate deaths and injuries. As to specific data on the target, the company will offer only vague answers.

"I would say we're pretty close to the Vision 2020 by now," said Samuelsson in a prepared statement. "Sure, accidents still happen, but the consequences are much milder now."