City Safety: Why there’s no stopping the pioneering auto-brake technology
In 2008, motoring experts around the world were asked to conduct a unique test in the then new, first-generation Volvo XC60.
They were asked to drive towards a mock, inflatable vehicle at about 25km/h. The second instruction was just as simple, yet harder to register for the driver: Don’t touch the brake pedal.
As the XC60 closed in on the ‘vehicle’ ahead and the driver’s natural instinct to press the brake pedal became ever harder to resist, the Volvo stopped automatically in its tracks – just centimetres from a ‘crash’.
This was a global demonstration of Volvo’s pioneering City Safety system. In isolation, it was a technology designed to reduce significantly the number of common, everyday low-speed rear-end collisions. In the bigger picture, it was the foundation of the journey towards fully autonomous vehicles.
David Pickett, Volvo Car Australia’s senior manager, product engineering, was involved directly with City Safety’s local debut, and he recalls its impact in the automotive industry.
“It was the first time you had a technology in the car that would pro-actively intervene to prevent an accident,” says David.
“’Intervening’ was the key word we were using, because there were comments at the time that it was the car taking control away from the driver.
“But that wasn’t the case: the vehicle was determining that the driver wasn’t going to react in time and it was otherwise going to hit the car in front.
“We know from research that it reduces front-to-rear accidents by about 40 percent, purely because it’s known that 80 percent of such accidents were caused by driver inattention. And in half of those accidents, drivers didn’t brake or take any action to avoid the accident. They just weren’t paying attention.”
When introduced, City Safety operated up to 30km/h and used laser beams, integrated into the top of the windscreen, to scan six to eight metres ahead.
If an obstacle came into range and the driver didn’t respond, the XC60’s electronic brain triggered forceful braking automatically to avoid contact or at least mitigate the crash.
NOISE ALERTS AND HUMAN TRAFFIC
The technology, which was standard on the XC60 and eventually all Volvo models, hasn’t stopped evolving.
Just a year later, in 2009, City Safety expanded to combine the laser beam with the camera and radar system of Collision Warning, which had debuted in 2006. This added an audible alert to prompt the driver into evasive action before the system considered braking.
It also incorporated the world-first Pedestrian Detection with Auto Brake, which used the newly developed radar in conjunction with the camera to help a Volvo driver avoid colliding with a person that may have stepped into the road.
The camera, mounted behind the rear-view mirror, would determine whether it was a pedestrian or vehicle as the potential hazard, while the grille-based radar detected the object and determined its distance from the vehicle.
Again, if the driver didn’t respond to the warnings, the system activated braking automatically to help avoid an accident, or reduce the severity of the impact, depending on vehicle speed.
(STAY) ON YER BIKE
In 2013, Volvo’s collision avoidance technology progressed yet again courtesy of new, advanced software and an upgraded camera with faster vision processing. This enabled the introduction of another world-first: Cyclist Detection.
The technology could help a Volvo driver avoid someone on a bicycle travelling in the same direction and accidentally veering into the vehicle’s path.
The same year, City Safety’s effective maximum operating speed increased from 30km/h to 50km/h.
DARKNESS ILLUMINATED AND NO BAD TURNS
Volvo’s second-generation XC90, introduced in 2015, was the platform for the next stages of City Safety, which by now was the name for all the company’s auto-brake technologies.
A smarter and faster, highly sensitive, megapixel image camera combined with advanced exposure control allowed the detection and auto-brake technology to work effectively even when driving in darkness.
The XC90 also became the first car in the world to feature Auto Brake with Intersection Support, which would halt the vehicle if it detected it was about to turn left (or right in left-hand-drive countries) into the path of an oncoming car.
BEING EVASIVE AND ANIMAL SPOTTING
In 2017, it was the turn of Volvo’s mid-sized luxury SUV, the XC60, to demonstrate the Swedish brand’s continuing leadership in active safety.
City Safety with Steering Support was designed to help drivers even if they were being attentive.
In the event of the Volvo driver needing to swerve suddenly to avoid an obstacle in the road, the system would first provide additional steering torque to help the directional change. The technology would then brake individual wheels to help straighten the vehicle.
This was a variation of the Run-off Road Mitigation feature first introduced on the 2016 S90 sedan. Engineered to prevent a common single-vehicle accident, the Mitigation system – operable between 65km/h and 140km/h – uses evasive steering manoeuvres and braking action where required to help keep a vehicle on the straight and narrow in the event of detecting an unintentional departure from the bitumen.
City Safety’s detection (and auto-braking) capabilities also further expanded, this time with the ability to identify large animals – after Volvo engineers spent years studying the behaviour of animals such as horses or cattle.
It was the first system that could work 24 hours a day, warning the driver then assisting with braking not just when a night vision system was engaged.
A BOLD VISION
David Pickett says City Safety and other active-safety technologies are about working towards Volvo’s Vision 2020, with the goal that no-one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car.
Volvo vehicles equipped with the company’s Pilot Assist technology are already capable of semi-autonomous drive, though with the onus of overall responsibility still strictly on the driver.
Yet Pickett says the continuing evolution of autonomous drive is a win-win situation for Volvo drivers whether they decide to use the self-driving technology or not.
“The other big thing is that although all this technology is heading us towards autonomous drive, it’s also making our vehicles so much safer in terms of the percentages of road accidents we have,” he says.
“If you travel on country roads all the time you won’t be able to run the car autonomously. But you will still have a car that has all the latest and greatest safety features that will stop you running off the road and avoiding injury or fatalities.”
The world’s progress towards fully autonomous vehicles – and a suitable road infrastructure that can accommodate them – remains a long one. Yet if it’s still unknown when this technological journey will end, thanks to City Safety we certainly know when it began.
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