Volvo will limit the top speed of its cars in order to bring fatalities down to zero by the year 2020.
The software sets a ceiling of 180 kilometers per hour (112 mph), high enough so it’ll mainly affect two kinds of drivers: scofflaws and those who ply Germany's fast-as-you-please autobahns. That generously high setting raises the question of just how many fatalities will be averted. Perhaps the point is to underline that Volvo means business—the company has been pushing its “Vision 2020” zero-fatality plan since 2006, and the deadline is looming.
Volvo will also use in-cabin cameras to check that drivers aren’t distracted, drowsy, or drunken. (That’s what the GM’s 2018 Cadillac CT6 does now when engaged in its semi-autonomous mode, called Super Cruise.) And any car built by Volvo will consult its onboard digital mapping service to take account of the zones (near schools, hospitals and other pedestrian-rich areas) where the car should slow to a crawl. This trick is called geofencing, and it’s an important part of making self-driving cars workable.
Volvo sells on safety more than most other car makers do, and it has already put a great deal of safety engineering into the car itself—for instance by emphasizing hardware redundancy. For several years, Volvos have been equipped with independently controlled motors capable of turning the wheels during emergency maneuvers.
Now, though, the company seems to be turning its attention to the weaker link: drivers. “As humans, we all understand the dangers with snakes, spiders, and heights. With speeds, not so much,” Jan Ivarsson, a safety expert at the company, said in a statement. “People often drive too fast in a given traffic situation and have poor speed adaption in relation to that traffic situation and their own capabilities as a driver.”
Last year two Volvo engineers put it more bluntly in the pages of IEEE Spectrum. “In 9 out of 10 accidents resulting in fatalities or major injuries, mistakes by the driver are a contributing factor,” wrote Erik Coelingh and Jonas Nilsson.
Still, zero is a very low number, and to get fatalities and major injuries down to nothing may require more drastic measures than stopping drivers from behaving unwisely. Maybe Volvo should take the next step and actually screen would-be customers: No hot-rodders need apply.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.