BURO Driving School: The present and future of car safety, according to Volvo Cars
Here’s food for thought. Despite most people spending time off the roads during MCO in 2020, Malaysia still saw a total of 248,116 road accidents and 2,662 fatalities between March 18 and November 18. While the stats indicate a drop by roughly 30 per cent compared to 2019’s numbers, it’s still an astonishing figure.
Out of those numbers of road deaths in 2020:
- 126 cases involved children in the 0-10 age group
- 739 cases involved teenagers and young adults in the 16-25 age group
The thing is we, as drivers, can try our best to be as safe as possible, but sometimes there are external factors that are out of our control. We’re only human.
“People are awesome drivers when they’re at their best. We need to make sure you’re at your best all of the time. Distraction from traffic is not something you choose. It’s life. It’s a child in the car; it can be a visit to a doctor. It can be anything that pulls your attention from the task of driving.”
Malin Ekholm, Head of Volvo Cars’ Safety Centre
By “we”, she means the people behind the design, the tech and the core of a car. Most, if not all, cars today come with some level of driving and safety assistance systems. Volvo Cars took it a step further in 2020 by introducing two life-changing alterations. One is Speed cap, where all new Volvo cars' top speed has been reduced to 180km/h. The second is Care Key, where the car owners can add a speed cap on the car when it’s in the hands of a new or less experienced driver.
Volvo Cars has been at the fore-front of car safety since its early days. After all, as Ekholm puts it, “there’s a little piece of Volvo innovation in every single car out there, and that’s the three-point safety belt. It was introduced (as standard in our cars) in 1959, and it was introduced to save lives.”
More can be done by the very vehicle that ferries us to and fro. A world-leading car safety expert and engineer, Ekholm walks us through the existing technologies that help saves lives, what’s to come and what else can be done.
Typically, drivers are accustomed to safety features such as Forward Collision Warning and the Automatic Emergency Brake system. Volvo Cars’ Driver Monitoring Camera is an interesting new addition but is there a cause for concern in terms of privacy?
“The Driver Monitoring Camera is a camera that isn't to film you but to act as a sensor with the highest level of detail to understand where you are in your mind. The eye is the mirror to the soul, and we want to use the camera to understand where you are, attention-wise, and bring you back (if you drift).
It reads your eyes and your movements to make that interpretation. After that, the first step would be turning on any support system that you may have turned off. Next would involve some kind of signalling, be it a sound, vibration or a visual to bring you back into the task of driving.
If that doesn't work for whatever reason, the next step would be a safe stop, some kind of communication to check how you are; but really, it's more about focusing on where you are."
It’s almost like having an assistant driver! What led to this specific system on monitoring the driver versus the road conditions?
“Again, distraction and intoxication are definitely two big challenges. Speed is another big challenge. Traffic is becoming more and more dense. We are driving more and spending more time in the car. So we need to think about how can we help each other make the traffic environment safer while not losing track of what the car is all about, which is the freedom to move.”
Crash tests are a given before giving a new car model the green light. What is the reality of crash tests, though?
“The thing that most people see when it comes to safety development is the crash test—the car running into some form of barrier. But the crash testing starts a lot earlier. It starts in the virtual world because, there, we can vary speeds, direction, body sizes and age.
The actual crash test is over in a split second but the process to get there is meticulous, which starts one week before the actual test. And yes, it's brand new cars coming from the factory. Depending on the test, we use a defined set of crash test dummies representing the human body. There's a defined speed and a defined direction—everything needs to be done to perfection, so it's a lot of hard work. A lot of details and checks over and over again. We get a back-to-back comparison from these physical tests, so we know we have the performance level you're expecting from a Volvo car.
My first time witnessing a crash test gave me goosebumps and, I felt—it was a very emotional reaction. Sometimes we get asked to show a crash from a very high speed—everyone wants to see it. But I think it's more important to witness a crash at a low speed because then you realise that the forces are high even at a low speed. It's very humbling, and you understand what people are going through.
That the process that got to me. That this is actually what people have experienced in real life and witnessing that, then and there, gives me that extra energy to push further, work harder and make our product even better."
When it comes to picturing the future, pop culture has dictated it to include flying cars or self-driving ones—is that the same vision in reality?
“Moving forward, we’re working on the technology where we actually enable you to have the freedom to move without the task of driving. We refer to this as autonomous driving, and it's a fantastic future. But we also need to understand what you want to use that extra time for. How would you like to use this new 'living room' that you will have, and how will you use this time and space to make your life better?
With that comes the question of how do we make sure that we protect you in those situations the same way as we've been working to protect you in the current set-up where you're actually doing the driving?
You need to translate the person-to-person communication into a car-to-person communication.
As a carmaker, we have the responsibility to make sure it's a car that translates to other road users, including cyclists, pedestrians, and others. So we need to understand what signals from the cars are relevant for the surrounding road users so that they can comprehend the car's intentions and understand what the autonomous car is going to do."
Until then, we can only do what’s available to us. As occupants of the car, what else can we do to ensure our safety while on the road?
"When it comes to traffic safety, the basics are really the most important starting point: using the safety belt, making that mandatory, using the protective systems that are there for children, booster cushions and other solutions to make sure that the children are protected in the best possible way, and then driving at a safe speed.
Doing those three is going to add a lot of safety to roads. And then only can we start the conversation on how to move forward from there. There is a global difference, but I think everyone can at least start in ensuring the basics are met."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For more on Volvo Cars' and their safety practices, visit their website.