Volvo wants you to believe it’s the safest car company in the world: That image sells cars. I remember a very effective print and TV ad based around the phrase, “Here, take the Volvo.” Say your daughter is headed out into the eye of a storm and planning to take her old beater. Dad hands her the keys to the safety car instead. Hey, it worked for me.

Some years ago, I was in Sweden on Volvo’s race track and tested out what was then an embryonic radar-based brake collision warning system (it saw production in 2006). The company set up a huge foam rubber car in the center of the track and had me drive toward it at full speed. Just before impact, the car slammed on the brakes. I still hit the dummy, just not as hard as I might have. Actually not hitting it would have been more satisfying.  

There were some bumps in the road to developing the system. And unfortunately it was all captured on film:

  

Fast forward a few years and now Volvo is prepared to introduce, on the 2011 S60, a $2,100 option that uses both radar and a forward-looking camera to avoid hitting pedestrians. At all. Not even a light tap. If the camera and the radar agree that the obstacle up ahead is a person, the car is going to stop, even if you’re a distracted driver chatting on a cell phone. Watch the video:

The system is supposed to stop cars going 22 mph or less, which could mean it’s ineffective for people who race through residential neighborhoods at 50 or more. Still, it’s a sophisticated approach to pedestrian safety, a major concern in Europe (where high transit use ensures walking) but not yet in the less-walkable United States (even though traffic accidents killed 4,600 American pedestrians in 2007, a number that holds fairly steady).  

The states with the highest number of pedestrian fatalities as a percentage of total accidents are New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, since they actually have pedestrians. Montana, where a pedestrian would be a major event, is last in line.  

The self-stopping car is now touring Washington state, and they’ve rigged up a baseball cap-wearing dummy that manages to keep its hat on. I was on Seattle's NPR affiliate, KUOW, talking about all this. They're kind of caffeinated normally out there, but they seemed extra excited about this.

But frankly, avoiding hitting pedestrians is just a fraction of what the Europeans (who suffer through 7,000 pedestrian deaths annually) have been up to. Automakers there agreed to incorporate pedestrian protection technology starting around 2005. They’ve been busily developing such sci-fi concepts as redesigned hoods that keep pedestrians from slamming into windshields, fiber-optic and radar sensors, and even outside airbags.

At German electronics giant Siemens, they developed a bumper-mounted fiber-optic system that can, within three milliseconds, determine whether the vehicle has just hit a person or an inanimate object like a lamppost. In 30 to 60 seconds, it can raise the hood to create what the company calls “a catching device to absorb the impact energy.” In other words, it cradles you on the hood instead of letting you go flying off in all directions.  

That’s what I’m talking about! That’s pedestrian safety! And now we’re seeing a little bit of it here, from Volvo (ironically now owned by an auto giant in China, which has a less-than-stellar auto safety record). We’ll see how the two cultures combine. Volvo has told me that the Chinese are hands-off so far. That’s probably the wiser course.

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