Sitting comfortably? Buckled in safe? Then we’ll begin…
Since its inception in 1927, Volvo Cars has given the world a lot to think about. At least as safety-focused as Mercedes-Benz (but with added acronyms), 1959 saw the Torslanda-based car firm installing front seat three-point safety belts as standard, allowing free use to any other manufacturer, not that many took up the initiative.
A concerned friend of mine once amassed a comprehensive file of seat belt data, weighing up the pros and cons from dozens of firms back in the early 1960s. After weeks of cogitation, he spent a weekend fitting Irvine belts (initially a parachute manufacturer) to his Morris 1100, which gave sterling service. The file carried weight – influencing one of his employer’s directors to choose Kangol belts (dyed red) for his Alvis 3-litre. Volvo, rather admirably remind us of who brought the belt to (mass produced) life – Since 1959 is stamped into the buckle.
A smattering of those acronyms for you now: thirty years have passed since SIPS (Side Impact Protection System) arrived and by 1994, the SIPS airbag was installed in the 850 model. 1998 saw WHIPS, for Whiplash Protection with a total redesign of seat structure. Four years later, we had IC, Inflatable roof Curtains, and four years thence, a gyro sensor was fitted to detect and deter rollover accidents, Rollover Stability Control (RSC).
2003 brought about IDIS, a (clearly archaic, now) early driver assistance system, hot on the heels of BLIS, for those tricky front end Blind Spots. Twelve years have flown since City Safe, the autonomous braking system to avert those low speed fender, fetlock and effing expensive prangs, became standard. Re-imagined now to detect cyclists, animals, jaywalkers – even in the dark.
But of this moment in 2020, every new Volvo has a built in cap – neither baseball nor flat, but a speed limiter – electrically governed to 112mph (180kph.) With the obvious German exceptions (de-restricted sections of autobahn), this is still way faster than any countries designated speed limits. Do Volvo drivers not speed?
Malin Ekholm is head of Volvo’s Cars Safety Centre, and she argues that while 112 is still fast, this measure won’t prevent speeding. “Many of our customers choose Volvo for safety reasons but”, she points out “we want to show we’re serious about speeding.” One can’t help but think the Swedes are acting Big Brother, especially when Ekholm mentions the imminent future of cameras to monitor cognitive behaviour.
Throw in tiredness and anti drink-drive sensors and suddenly all those bells and whistles might prevent that early morning airport dash you’d planned. Ekholm retorts with “we want to focus your mind on driving and have the ability to re-focus your attention back to the road and away from extraneous distractions.”
In the June 2020 Autocar interview she does make some good points, but cynicism about the Swedish brand’s new safety stance remains. A large attraction of the motor car stems from the foot down, speed towards the horizon, kiss that apex and power on to the next, glorious radius, feeling. But our modern world increasingly demands so much of us – what chances do we get to drive this way when distractions arrive thick and fast. Even the most diligent of drivers, though never admitting to it, will have lost focus whilst on the highway.
Be it a piece on the news, social media, an argument in the car (or phone), missing that junction, that gorgeous creature on the opposite pavement; all of this at once while keeping to the speed limit, avoiding the bus/ van/ idiot in front who has stopped for no damn reason. That split second, slow speed distraction could impose as big an impact as entering that bend too fast. Can VAR (or some suchlike) detect all that?
Many attributes of driving are down to trust, yet speeding is by far the most committed crime. Many people still see rules as there to be broken and no matter if you’re lucky enough to be driving a McLaren P1 or any its ilk, there will always be somebody who wants to get past you. Trucks have had speed limiters for years and we’ve all witnessed the centimetres gap between them on motorways.
Cars are different though: who drives consistently above their country’s national speed limit these days? With detection becoming more covert, not to mention financially punishing, road surfaces becoming ever more pockmarked, coupled with all those bloody distractions, where can you exceed 112 mph (180kph) with any modicum of tranquillity?
Has Volvo made the correct decision then? That question is difficult to answer. Good on them for trying something, but will others follow, seeing as the dread day of fully automated driving is swiftly closing in? In some ways, I’d embrace a self-driving car, allowing you to eat breakfast or read some reports on the way in to the office (I know some do already) or appreciating without distractions Elgar’s Enigma Variations at speed yet comfortable in the cocoon of technological safety.
I aver however to being in control with foot and hand/ eye coordination, experience and that most peculiar of attributes, being human. Technology can be as fallible as any of us. Don’t strangle the car yet – on that front, there’s already more than enough legislation.