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Volvo Demonstrates Active Safety Technologies in Sweden

Self-driving Volvos could be on sale by 2020.

Volvo is taking the next, inevitable step toward autonomy with a pilot test involving 100 citizen drivers and new cars in 2017 on limited-access highways on the outskirts of the company's headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. Volvo could offer the feature in its new cars by 2020.

"I think you can expect (partial autonomy) in 2020 as a commercial product. But it will always be for highways, for the boring passages," Hakan Samuelsson told journalists at the company's Vision 2020 presentation of new active and passive safety systems that will be standard in the 2016 Volvo XC90. You can expect a few of the XC90s to be among the 100 in the '17 test, though Samuelsson, the CEO and president, says management hasn't yet decided the model mix.

The limited-autonomy system, which relies on laser guidance, cameras, and GPS, will be distributed to Volvo customers -- not test drivers -- in Gothenburg in about two years' time.

"It still requires that drivers not sit in the back," Samuelsson says. Local authorities will be part of the test in order to start addressing the legal questions.

Vision 2020 is Volvo's commitment to eliminating deaths and serious injuries in its brand-new cars by that model year. New safety features demonstrated in the 2016 Volvo XC90 at its headquarters in early December are part of the ecosystem designed to meet the goal. The program there began with a crash test to demonstrate the XC90's Run Off-Road Protection Package, which includes electrical seat-belt retractors that automatically tighten when the front camera detects that the CUV has left the pavement despite driver warnings to keep to the road. The vehicle's seats have energy-absorbing spring pieces in the lower cushions (pictured at right) to prevent spinal injuries. The piece is an unusually simple, non-electronic solution and it can be replaced even if the original seat is retained in the repairs. The vehicle's brake pedal also retracts in the case of a hard crash. A new driver alert system, also part of the standard City Safe, suggests on the instrument panel when the driver appears to be growing tired and uses the GPS system to find the closest rest stop.

Like the latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Acura's RLX and MDX, and Infiniti Q50, the 2016 Volvo XC90 -- ahead of the 2020 model-year expansion of the system -- will feature some very light autonomy that allows limited self-steering for very short periods of time so long as the driver has his or her hands lightly on the wheel, Samuelsson says.

The 2016 Volvo XC90 off-road crash in Gothenburg was less dramatic than most tests, except for the part where the big new CUV took a bit of air after bouncing into an embankment. It suffered under-chassis damage, lost a few bits from the lower fascia, and blew all its airbags, but looked drivable.

Volvo's City Safe feature, which warns drivers of a potential crash, also has been improved to flash a dashboard light, beep an audio warning, and apply the brakes to prevent from hitting a bicyclist or running down a pedestrian. The feature is standard across the model range. The company says it has made big improvements in pedestrian and bicycle recognition.

Vision 2020 is an admirable goal, even if you're already growing tired of too much intervention of this kind. Volvo says there won't be undue intervention so long as the driver is paying attention. The latest City Safe also keeps the brakes applied for an additional second if the system detects that the driver is trying to turn left into traffic too soon, ahead of an oncoming car. (Though most modern motorists seem overly careful in the way they wait for extraordinarily big traffic openings.)

Volvo is testing these systems with the help of a new, 900 million Swedish kronor (about $120 million) facility about an hour's drive outside of Gothenburg. The developers of AstaZero -- for Active Safety Test Area -- are Chalmers University of Technology and Your Science Partners. Clients besides Volvo cars will include Volvo trucks, Mercedes-Benz, and Scania. The developers describe it as "the world's first full-scale test facility," featuring a 700-meter (0.4-mile), extra-wide multilane road to test emergency braking, an urban area in graphic wrapping to look like a section of Harlem in New York (below), and even some two-lane highways that the locals will be able to access and become part of traffic safety studies without knowing it. No doubt, Volvo's customer-testers of the autonomy feature will be using these roads a lot in 2017.