Despite being the middle of the day, the New York traffic is fairly sedate. A neighbourhood in the district of Harlem is deserted and silent as a ghost town. Anna Wrige Berling, Safety Coordinator at Volvo Advanced Technology and Research, glances through a window at an intersection where 30 tonnes of heavy Volvo FH truck turns right. Suddenly a little boy runs out in the middle of the street.
The screeching of tires pierces the air, but there is no crash. The truck stops a few inches from the petrified boy.
“A highly possible scenario in city traffic,” says Anna Wrige Berling quietly when she steps out into the street and checks the distance between the boy and the truck.
This time there was no need to get excited. The boy is just a puppet in foam and the Harlem district consists of a backdrop. The truck is controlled by a robotic system.
We are at AstaZero, just outside the southern Swedish city of Borås. It is the world’s first full-scale test environment for the testing of active safety systems. The facility opened in August 2014, and it is here that Volvo Trucks hopes to strengthen its position as a world leader in active safety technology and intelligent vehicles. The research is often crucial. According to the WHO’s latest Global Status Report on Road Safety, around 1.2 million people are killed every year in road accidents worldwide.
In connection with the urban environment at AstaZero, there are all kinds of roads with traffic within a modern infrastructure. A 5.7 km long highway stretches around the entire area. In the centre is a 700 metre long acceleration track with four lanes leading into a high-speed area. A sea of asphalt.
Accidents often occur because the driver is not paying attention. The human factor contributes to nine out of ten accidents today - hence the need for active safety.
Access to these natural traffic environments for testing is crucial for Volvo Trucks’ development of future safety systems. active safety systems are very complex and require advanced testing before they are completely safe for use.
“Here we can see where the limits are in completely safe conditions. During the development process, the system must be allowed to fail and hit a balloon car or a crash test dummy. We want to drive with the robot, in order to improve the accuracy and repeatability of the tests. In a real world traffic environment, this would not be possible,” says Anna Wrige Berling.
Unlike passive safety systems – technology such as seatbelts and airbags to save us when the accident has actually occurred – the active safety systems should minimise the risk of an accident happening at all.
“Accidents often occur because the driver is not paying attention. The human factor contributes to nine out of ten accidents today - hence the need for active safety. And by that we don’t mean that drivers are usually at fault, rather that traffic situations can be very complex. We usually refer to it as a driver assistance system which compensates for the human factor,” says Anna Wrige Berling, who also has a background as leader of Volvo Accident Research Team.
Volvo Trucks has recently devoted a great deal of time on AstaZero to the research project ‘Non-hit car and truck’. The project is a collaboration with Volvo Cars, where vehicles using cameras and radar sensors scan the urban environment to avoid collision with those soft objects that can be difficult to detect for the truck driver – cyclists and pedestrians.
Despite the fact that the innovations tested at AstaZero seem to be science fiction, the technology is very much a reality. ‘Non-hit car and truck’ tests have yielded very promising results so far.
“There is still much testing to be done before it is ready to be introduced to the market, but there are already many intelligent safety systems in traffic. Starting in November 2015, it will be a legal requirement in many countries that certain active safety applications are present in newly manufactured trucks,” says Anna Wrige Berling.
Volvo Trucks has already had standardised active safety systems that meet the legal requirements for some time.
No Volvo truck should be involved in an accident. This is the ultimate goal. One can smile and say that this is something that may never happen, but zero is the only acceptable figure and therefore we strive towards this.
The latest and most talked about system – Volvo Collision Warning with Emergency Brake – also consists of a combination of radar and camera. When the system detects vehicles in front that are stationary or moving slowly, the driver is alerted by sound and light signals. If there is no reaction from the driver then the system brakes itself – at first gently, then with full force until the truck has stopped completely and has avoided the collision.
The so-called Lane Keeping Support, which alerts with a buzzing sound if the driver inadvertently crosses a road marking is a Volvo system that already meets statutory requirements.
Yet despite the advances in technological developments, it is not the complete answer to the road safety issue. “We must be humble in acknowledging that road traffic safety is not all about technology, it is also a social issue.” says Carl Johan Almqvist, Volvo Trucks’ Traffic and Product Safety Director.
According to the WHO report, several countries have, in recent years, reduced the number of traffic accidents. One crucial factor is technology that has improved vehicle safety, another has been efforts at national level through zero visions. Volvo Trucks has their own zero vision.
“The truck cab is a very safe working environment if you wear a seat belt, but we also want to stretch ourselves outside the cab and include other road users in our safety vision. No Volvo truck should be involved in an accident. This is the ultimate goal. One can smile and say that this is something that may never happen, but zero is the only acceptable figure and therefore we strive towards this,” says Carl Johan Almqvist.