About ten years ago on July 2008, Volvo Car Corporation announced a rather outlandish ambition for itself – that by 2020 no one should be killed or injured in a new Volvo car. Typical of Sweden’s human-centric and noble culture, Volvo argued that society has a very contradictory attitudes towards safety. We are highly critical when lives are lost in an airplane crash but are nonchalant about the 1.2 million killed and 50 million wounded in traffic accidents each year.
While the aviation industry has made great strides in safety, the same cannot be said about the automotive industry. Of course, this is mainly due to the weakest link in the chain – the human driver. A pilot is a highly trained and highly disciplined personnel, supported by very meticulous maintenance by airline operators. Pilots also regularly practice emergency scenarios on a simulator. Cars are operated by the masses, many with poor discipline, and the cost of enforcing a similarly high standard on the masses is simply unrealistic.
Still, Volvo is doing what it can as a car maker. By 2013, Swedish insurer Folksam released a report saying that based on medical and collision repairs claims paid out in Sweden, Volvo cars are up to 60 percent safer than average.
Two years later, other Swedish insurers are already reporting that Volvo’s City Safety-equipped cars are 28 percent less likely to collide with another vehicle. Insurers in several developed markets have since offered discounts of between 20 to 25 percent on insurance premiums for selected Volvo models.
Significant improvements have been made but with only two years left to 2020, Volvo doesn’t have much time left in reaching that goal.
At the sidelines of a test drive of the all-new Volvo XC60 in Barcelona late last year, Carlist.my caught up with Thomas Broberg, Senior Technical Advisor for Safety at the Volvo Car Group. We asked Broberg on how realistic this ambitious target is?
Broberg acknowledged that meeting that target requires not just efforts by Volvo but also cooperation from governments around the world. He agreed that Volvo could’ve saved itself a lot of trouble by setting a less ambitious target, but doing so would lead to unproductive use of time and resources.
“We could have setup a less ambitious goal, say for instance – reduce by 50 percent. But then we would have spent half our time arguing which 50 percent is that. With a total zero fatality target, we can focus our work, taking it step by step. It’s really a matter of your attitude towards a very serious problem,” said Broberg.
Broberg added that the biggest challenge towards reaching the goal of zero fatality is not the engineering of the vehicle, but the mindset of the people. Throughout our conversation, he kept repeating the words “…the attitude towards a very serious problem.”
“You wouldn’t accept if something bad happens to you while you are in a restaurant. Imagine if a car is invented today, would this be allowed in civilized countries - if you look at the numbers in Europe it’s about 30,000 people being killed each year (from traffic accidents). We have accepted this as a fact of transportation, but why?,” he lamented.
He also explained that contrary to popular opinion, the target of zero fatality didn’t come from Volvo, but a challenge from the Swedish government, although Volvo is the first car maker to take up the challenge.
“The Swedish government had already setup this vision in the ‘90s. Other governments were sort of laughing ‘Well how are you going to achieve this,’ but now more and more governments are adopting the same philosophy. We have an agreement with the Swedish government to not only do collaborative research but also on how we can share responsibilities. As a car manufacturer, we can tell what we can do with the car from a technical point of view and then we can a discuss with the authorities on what can they do with road infrastructure,” he said.
While the challenge is tall, Broberg sees this as a natural progression for Volvo’s long history in leading the field of safety. “It’s not like we started yesterday, we have been working on this for decades, since the days of the founders of Volvo,” he chuckled.
He added that Volvo have been collecting real-world accident data for over 40 years and this gives them a very strong advantage. Since 1970, teams at the Volvo Accident Research Team have been following emergency services providers to actual accident sites involving Volvo cars, to collect first-hand data on how the vehicle's safety systems performed in the real world because cars don't always behave the same way as they would in a lab. Sometimes, the accidents are recreated inside Volvo's lab.
“We are able to see the true effect of the countermeasures that we have placed over time. We know how well we have performed but more importantly, using this methodology, we can compare what we measure in terms of real life performance in relation to the targets that was set. This means that over time, we have improved our capabilities of predicting the future. Because if we are going to have a statement, a vision that we are going down to zero, it’s going to take an extremely long time to actually get the evidence,” he said.
Volvo is aware that traffic conditions in our region are very different from Europe and it actively conducts extensive testing in Asian cities like Beijing, one of the most congested cities in the world.
Broberg added that Volvo is also studying traffic conditions in South East Asian cities like Bangkok, where Volvo supports the Thailand Accident Research Centre Investigation (TARC), which works with a local university to collect real-world accident data.
Another of Broberg’s colleagues who is more familiar with the situation in South East Asia lamented that the situation in this region is made even more complicated by its varied cultural dimension. If someone dies in a car crash, it is because of fate rather than as a direct consequence of their own attitude towards driving.
“A big part of the population believes that everything has already been decided, so there is another cultural dimension to it and who can take the fight against God?” he sighed.
“Cars today are very safe. Every car has a seat belt, but people don’t use it. Many cars have airbags but you still see parents putting their child on their lap and using their child as an ‘airbag,’” said the frustrated engineer.
“Children are a special concern. They have not made the choice themselves. Someone else made the choice for them,” he said.
Attitudes like these frustrates safety engineers like Broberg and his colleagues, who spent all their working hours trying to make the world safer for everyone, not just drivers but also pedestrians and cyclists and bikers.
Looking into the future, we also asked Volvo if autonomous driving is the key towards achieving zero fatality. Surprisingly, Broberg said the answer is yes and no.
“As humans we have a unique capability in how we can predict things based on experience and based on cues that are very subtle. We adjust our behavior based on these cues. For example, if we see a car ahead is driving a little bit odd, you might think it’s better to stay away. We can predict possible scenarios based on certain cues,” he said.
A large part of Broberg’s time spent in developing safety systems for autonomous driving is to train the computer to notice these cues.
“The difficult part is not to make the car brake itself or steer itself, but to make sure that it does not brake or does not steer when it’s not supposed to. So the basic philosophy is to take it step by step,” he added.
Before we parted, we asked Broberg for his wish list. Right at the top of his list is fixing the under-utilized safety potential of the three-point seat belt, which Volvo invented in 1969 but gave the patent away for free, simply because it’s the right thing to do. “My hope is for drivers to take these very simple measures to protect themselves,” he said.
His other gripes include drunk driving and high speeds. “In Sweden it is socially unacceptable to allow your friend whom you have been drinking with to get into a car and drive,” he said. While there always debate on whether speed kills, Volvo’s safety expert’s stance on the matter is quite clear, the high speeds are almost always a factor in any road fatality.
This beautiful video below sums up what Broberg and his colleagues at Volvo Car's thoughts.