Volvo's 2020 pledge: No one will die in our cars.

The safety leader says improvements in autonomous car technology will make its vehicles virtually injury-proof within the next few years. 

Gary Cameron/ Reuters
Volvo President and CEO Hakan Samuelsson speaks at the North American Auto Show in Detroit on January 11. The company's XC90 won the show's Truck of the Year award.

Claiming that your product is death-proof sounds a little grandiose, if not downright dangerous.

But if any car manufacturer can do it, it might be Volvo, whose pioneering safety has been setting industry-wide standards for decades, making three-point seatbelts and rear-facing car seats the norm.

Now, the Swedish company says their vehicles will be death-proof by 2020, making good on industry promises that autonomous vehicles are not just cool, but life-saving. 

"If you meet Swedish engineers, they're pretty genuine," Volvo Cars North America CEO Lex Kerssemakers told CNN. "They don't say things when they don't believe in it."

And experts say consumers shouldn't be totally surprised. Volvo's post-2020 cars will basically combine a slew of autonomous driving features that they and other companies have been introducing for years, even as Americans say they're still wary of "self-driving" technology: Only about half say they'd consider buying a self-driving vehicle, or partially self-driving, although far more say that they like individual autonomous features. 

Volvo's 2020 plans will bring together sensor technology like adaptive cruise control, which can work in stop-and-go commuter traffic; it's already an option in its XC90 SUV, which won the North American Truck of the Year award and a Top Safety Pick Plus from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The company's supposedly death-defying cars will also use sensing and alerting technology to let drivers know when it senses the car is going off the road, turning into oncoming traffic, or about to hit a cyclist or large animal — and if that doesn't work, they'll put on the brakes automatically. The vehicles will even keep an eye out for sleepy or distracted drivers, sounding a warning if erratic driving suggests someone's nodding off behind the wheel. 

Although Volvo is the first to make a zero-death pledge, similar semi-autonomous features have helped nine cars achieve a zero-fatality record from 2009 to 2012, including Volvo's XC90. 

"With the development of full autonomy we are going to push the limits of automotive safety – because if you make a fully autonomous vehicle you have to think through everything that potentially can happen with a car," the company's safety engineer Erik Coelingh told CNN. 

2020 is viewed as the year fully self-driving cars might hit the roads, but tests show there's still a lot to be done before human drivers can completely sit back and let their vehicles do their thing. Google's highly publicized self-driving car, for example, needed a real person to take over 341 times over the 1.3 million miles it's covered since 2014. 

"There’s not going to be some magical moment when we say, here is the autonomous car," Audi USA President Scott Keogh told The New York Times last spring. "We have the technology, and we are going to keep bringing it out, step by step. You need to have customer acceptance and see what consumers are willing to pay for."

For some, the future-is-now feel of a self-driving car is just too novel. Others worry about hacking vulnerabilities for computer-controlled cars, and many say they're buying a car to drive, not just to get somewhere. 

Eventually, however, the safety features of Volvo and other companies' self-driving cars may win over skeptics. Although the rate of fatal car crashes has dropped since 1950, to 10.3 per 100,000 people, so-called distracted driving has reached a whole new level in the 21st century with texting and cell-phone calls. Autonomous technologies could make those bad habits less fatal. 

But Volvo's created several enticements for buyers considering a more autonomous car. In 2017, Swedish commuters will be able to watch TV or read on screens installed in the Concept 26, which is outfitted with traffic-friendly autopilot. In October, CEO Hakan Samuelsson said Volvo "will accept full liability" for any accidents that happen in autonomous mode. The 2020 death-proof promise could make that irresistible. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.