Hop into the driver’s seat of any new passenger vehicle, and you’ll instinctively reach over your left shoulder, grab that metal buckle, and insert it into the latch next to your right hip. The three-point seat belt has become as much a part of our driving experience as the steering wheel itself.
It was Volvo that pioneered the three-point belt in passenger cars way back in 1959, long before seat belts of any kind became required equipment on new cars. From there, Volvo has championed its safety features into a decades-long marketing campaign which has been very effective. Many people now think of “Volvo” and “safety” at the same time.
Volvo is now showing off another new safety feature that won’t necessarily save lives, but is likely to prevent injuries, crumpled car parts, and raised insurance rates. The new City Safety system helps a driver avoid low-speed collisions, and is standard on the upcoming XC60 sport utility vehicle. (I’ll have a more complete report on the vehicle itself in a future issue of the Tolucan Times once I have a chance to drive it in a more thorough manner.)
Essentially, City Safety watches the space in front of you when you don’t. We’ve all had those situations in traffic where we look away to find a sheet of paper, a CD, or money for a parking lot. In those brief moments, traffic ahead of us can stop suddenly, and a low-speed rear-ender can mean embarrassment, insurance claims, and in some cases, a lawsuit.
The Volvo system uses a laser sensor situated above the rear view mirror at the top of the windshield. It calculates the speed you’re traveling, and can detect when a stationary object (such as a stopped car) is about to be run into. In the last few feet before the object is stuck, City Safety applies full braking force and sounds a loud alarm. It works at speeds of 19 miles per hour or less, and will either prevent a collision or at least minimize the impact. The driver is still in full control, as anytime the brake pedal is applied the system is overridden.
I got to participate in a demonstration of it recently at a local Volvo dealership. A team of representatives took the XC60 on tour to let people try out the City Safety system and see first-hand how it works. In a large section of parking lot, a short stretch of pavement was coned off to simulate a lane of traffic. About thirty feet ahead of us was a trio of plastic pylons that represented the rear of another vehicle.
The young lady from Volvo in the passenger seat instructed me to accelerate to about 15 miles per hour and head straight for the pylons, but to not touch the brake. It was a little strange to just head for an object with the intention of hitting it, but that’s what I did. As the XC60 rolled toward the target, I kept the speedometer right at the designated speed with my foot off brake pedal. As soon as we got within a few yards of the pylons, the car suddenly braked on its own and came to a complete stop with room to spare.
The sensation was quite amazing, as if my co-driver had her own brake pedal and was applying the brakes for me. But this was a conventional vehicle with no such secondary pedal – the car’s electronic systems did all the emergency stopping. There’s a little bit of a ruckus when all the self-stopping is going on, but that just helps you realize that you avoided a collision. A warning symbol flashes on the instrument cluster, a row of red lights on top of the dashboard flash, and a loud, pulsing beep alerts you to what’s going on. Even the most distracted driver should come to full attention right afterward.
Volvo says that the City Safety system is in no way meant to replace good driving skills and paying attention. Ideally, a driver would never have to make use of it. But there are times, especially in our heavy freeway traffic, when this new system could really come in handy. Volvo points out that at the very least, it could save minor injuries to passengers in both cars, as well as substantial cost to repair what used to be known as “minor” collision damage.
There is no price mentioned for the system, as it’s standard equipment on the XC60, which starts at $37,200. For that price, all sorts of other safety equipment is also standard, just as Volvo buyers have come to expect. It’s probably also a safe bet that the company will eventually add City Safety to its other models in the coming years.
Nobody ever means to run into the car in front of them, which is why we use the term “accident.” With this new bit of technology, drivers of the new XC60 will be able to avoid those embarrassing low-speed crashes, and won’t have to say “I’m sorry” to another driver. They can just say a soft “thank you” to their car.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.