Volvo r&d chief defends 'Big Brother' steps to reach safety goal

To reach its Vision 2020 goal of making sure that no one is killed or seriously injured in any new Volvo starting next year, the automaker will limit the top speed in its new models to 180 kph (112 mph). Volvo also will install cameras and sensors in next-generation vehicles to determine whether a driver is intoxicated or distracted. The steps Volvo will take to achieve its ambitious safety target have resulted in lots of questions, which r&d chief Henrik Green addressed in an interview with Automotive News Europe Managing Editor Douglas A. Bolduc.

What type of feedback have you received or seen related to Volvo’s plan to reduce the speed in future vehicles? 
I would say it is 80% positive or neutral and 20 negative.

Has anyone from the 20 percent side made a valid argument?
We have heard the Big Brother argument, which I can understand and which we sympathize with. There is a balance with regard to what you do and don’t do as a car company. So, that’s a relevant discussion. But that is why we have brought up the negative comments we received when we introduced the seat belt 60 years ago because they are very similar. If you are a car engineer, it’s not difficult to create a car that drives fast. It’s much more difficult to drive safe.

Will Volvo limit the maximum speed in its new models because accidents that happen above this speed are too likely to result in death or serious injuries?
We talked a lot about this and looked at where we should draw the line. If you strictly look at the risk of a really serious incident if you hit a brick wall or a truck or something big, you would want to go even lower [than 180 kph]. It’s incredibly dangerous even if you are driving 179 kph in such an instance. Not only if you hit something big but also because your reaction time is not as good at higher speeds. But, on the other hand, since this is an unintelligent speed cap, it includes all circumstances. We needed to balance this against all potential use cases in all conditions. This includes instances when people feel they need to speed, such as in an emergency. Therefore, you have to balance that expected capability of the vehicle from the user in those very rare cases versus the risk if there is an accident. That is how we ended up with 180 kph as the best balance. It’s still very fast.

Do know how often people are going 180 kph or more in a Volvo?
Yes, and we know that people very rarely go those speeds. But this is why we cannot definitely say how many people we will save because there is such a small number of people driving at those speeds. What we do know is that they are at a much high risk at those speeds, which is why we set our cap at 180 kph.

Is Volvo doing this because your future cars, performance-wise, will not capable of reaching these speeds?
No, not at all. We are not changing the vehicle in that sense. We haven’t reduced any of the safety systems in the car as a consequence of this discussion. In addition, it is worth pointing out that there is no system in the vehicle that is specifically there for a 200 kph impact. Airbags, for instance, help a lot in a 15 kph crash or in a 70 kph crash, but at those super-high speeds, there is no unique system in the vehicle designed for that.

How close is Volvo already to its Vision 2020 goal? Are you at 80% now and you needed to reduce speed to help you get to 100 percent? Is it possible to quantify?
No, we can't quantify it because I don’t even have a good number yet. It takes a certain amount of kilometers driven to accumulate the responses to accurately forecast where we will be. And, if you factor in our latest vehicles with all of their safety systems, we have not accumulated enough data on them to be able to quote the figure. I can say that the remaining portion is part of the gap that we are trying to close by limiting speed and the other steps we are talking about [such as adding cameras and sensors in its next-generation cars starting in the early 2020s to determine whether a driver is impaired or distracted and intervening to prevent accidents]. It’s a small gap, but it’s a gap.

What happens if a 2020 model year Volvo is involved in an accident on 1 May, 2020 and someone dies or is seriously injured? What kind of reaction will there be at Volvo?
For us, Vision 2020 is mission. It guides everything we do. With the technology we have on the table now and everything we have talked about this year, we believe that we can close the gap. However, I am sure that as you start to lower the water level even further, you start to see smaller trees rising above surface that you didn’t see before. When we find more areas that we need to address, we will do so.

Will Volvo give itself a pass if a person in one of its future vehicles, with all these safety features, purposely injures or kills himself or herself?
There are always cases in which people, by choice, cause injuries and deaths, regardless what we do. Our ultimate mission, however, is to reduce that to zero.