Volvo Attacks Key Safety Problem

Volvo has spent much of its history trying to make its cars safer -- a key part of its heritage and reason-for-being. But now, the Swedish car company has launched in a new direction to try to solve a key safety problem -- the inattentive driver. Studies, including research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States, show that up to 90 percent of all traffic accidents are caused by driver distraction.

To address this issue, Volvo Cars has recently introduced two safety systems. Driver Alert Control alerts the driver when his or her concentration level is negatively affected, for instance, during long journeys where drowsiness can set in, while Lane Departure Warning alerts the driver if the car crosses one of the road markings without an obvious reason. The two systems will be part of the same option package called Driver Alert System available in the Volvo S80, V70 and XC70 at the end of this year.

"Real-life safety is the key to our safety philosophy," said Ingrid Skogsmo, director of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre in Sweden. "When it comes to preventive safety, we have the same approach as when we develop protective systems. In other words, our research and technical development focus on areas where new technology can create significant results in real-life traffic."

According to NHTSA, 100,000 accidents annually are caused by drivers who fall asleep behind the wheel in the United States alone, resulting in 1,500 fatalities and more than 70,000 injuries. And the situation is similar in Europe. The German Insurance Association GDV estimates that about 25 percent of all fatal accidents on the German Autobahn are caused by driver fatigue.

Volvo's Driver Alert Control is primarily intended for situations where the risk of losing concentration is the greatest, and where an accident would have severe consequences. For example, a straight, smooth road that lulls the driver into a sense of relaxation. The system steps in at about 40 miles per hour (65 km/h) and stays active as long as the speed exceeds 37 mph (60 km/h.) The system monitors the car's movements and assesses whether the vehicle is being driven in a controlled or uncontrolled way, and that is a unique approach.

"We do not monitor human behavior, which varies from one person to another, but instead the effect that fatigue or decreased concentration has on driving behavior," said Daniel Levin, project manager for Driver Alert Control at Volvo Cars. "Our system is based on the car's progress on the road. It gives a reliable indication if something is likely to go wrong and alerts the driver before it is too late. We often get questions about why we have chosen this concept instead of monitoring the driver's eyes. The answer is that we don't think that the technology of monitoring the driver's eyes is mature enough yet."

Driver Alert Control can also cover situations where the driver is focusing too much on his/her cell phone or children in the car, thereby not having full control of the vehicle. The device consists of a camera, a number of sensors and a control unit. The camera continuously measures the distance between the car and the road lane markings. The sensors register the car's movements. The control unit stores the information and calculates whether the driver risks losing control of the vehicle. If the risk is assessed as high, the driver is alerted via an audible signal. In addition, a text message appears in the car's information display, alerting him or her with a coffee cup symbol to pull over and rest.

"It is, of course, always the driver's responsibility to take a break when necessary, but sometimes you might not realize that you're not alert enough to drive," Levin said. "In such situations, Driver Alert Control can help the driver make the right decision, like taking a refreshing break or a nap, before the concentration level becomes too low."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes on auto safety issues, the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.