Volvo, which showed off a (nearly) autonomous car in Washington, D.C. last week, believes that the future of driving is hands-off. And it cites the company’s strong point — safety — as a way to make its case. Consider these facts:

  • More than 90 percent of U.S. crashes are the result of driver error.
  • Accidents on international roads result in the deaths of 1.3 million people (and 50 million injuries), says WHO.
  • Only six percent of all accidents (and just three percent of fatalities) are a result of slippery roads.
  • At intersections, 10 percent of all accidents are the result of drivers violating the red-light rules.
Volvo thinks it will be marketing "injury-proof" self-driving cars by 2020, and Nissan agrees.

Smart cars won’t break the law, and (as the video below shows) know enough to get out of the way of ambulances and other emergency vehicles. “Cars will need to talk with each other, and the infrastructure will need to talk to cars,” said Dr. Peter Mertens, a Volvo vice president. “Connected car technology will be developed step-by-step in an evolutionary process.” Volvo has shown off cars that park themselves, but the cars it will bring out next year can’t do that. Adaptive Cruise Control with Steer Assist will, instead, automatically follow the car ahead (using radar sensors and a camera) at speeds under 31 mph. It maintains an even distance, and steers to stay in its lane. Self-driving cars are still down the road, but Volvo’s moving in that direction.

Volvo is partnered with MIT on technology that will help out drivers who are falling asleep, over-stressed (and acting out) or experiencing heart-related problems. It’s also working with NAVTECH on map data that will make sure your car knows the road.

Mercedes-Benz is also pretty far along with self-driving cars, and is testing them -- cautiously -- in German traffic. The company already markets a range of driver-assist functions (see above)—including features that keep you in your lane and Stop & Go Pilot, which can vary your speed as you inch forward in heavy traffic congestion.

Mercedes’ self-driving cars use a camera mounted on the windshield that looks at other vehicles and measures their direction and rate of speed. Radar takes the long-distance view, and another camera that translates red or green lights. The Benz cars have trunks full of electronics, but by the time these cars hit the market it will all be condensed to something the size of a cigarette pack.

The biggest obstacle to self-driving cars isn’t the technology per se, but the insurance considerations. Technology designed to make you safer can actually turn out to be dangerous if a sensor or camera fails and sends you into traffic with a mind of its own. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is working on that, and seems confident that the hurdles (which look big now) will be overcome.

Here's Volvo autonomy on video:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

New self-driving cars from Volvo and Mercedes tout 'injury-proof' driving
Autonomous cars — with a safety first mentality — are coming. And it's all happening faster than you might think.