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Saved by auto brakes? Thank your lucky lasers

The last time I was so impressed with lasers it was 1977, and the BlueOyster Cult were on stage at the Kitchener-Waterloo Auditorium.

The last time I was so impressed with lasers it was 1977, and the Blue Oyster Cult were on stage at the Kitchener-Waterloo Auditorium. We heard their laser show was legendary, but to see it in person, and under such loud circumstances, was, well, heavy man. It made my centre-parted hair stand on end.

Fast forward to October 2008 and I’m driving a 2010 Volvo XC60, at its world launch in Valencia, Spain. One of Volvo’s safety engineers is in the passenger seat going over the drill: maintain a speed of 25 km/hr; drive straight into that big balloon (which is shaped like a car); don’t touch the brakes.

It’s a weird feeling to intentionally drive straight into an object, however fluffy it might look. But I manage to not brake and with the backside of the balloon car looming large, some brain inside the XC60 suddenly brakes for me. The XC60 stutters to an ABS-enabled stop. No damage to persons or property.

Sometimes it’s hard to get excited about safety (hey Bob, come over and check out this thing’s crumple zone!), but this system is pretty cool. Volvo calls it City Safety, and it is their response to two surprising statistics: 75 per cent of all reported collisions take place at speeds up to 30 km/hr; in 50 per cent of those collisions, the driver does not brake at all, mainly because he or she is distracted.

A laser sensor integrated into the windshield (near the rear-view mirror), detects vehicles and other objects up to 10 metres in front of the XC60’s front bumper. The system does loads of math to see if there will be an impact if the driver continues to be MIA. At that point, it will do what it did during our simulated adventure: engage the brakes, shut down the throttle, flash the brake lights.

Even if it can’t avoid a collision, it will do its thing to reduce the force of the collision.

Insurance companies are super interested in City Safety, for obvious reasons, and are planning to offer discounts to XC60 owners.

As good as this thing is, it’s obviously not supposed to relieve the driver of his or her responsibility for maintaining a safe distance — or for staying focused on the task at hand. That goes for the passengers too; in my books there’s nothing like a good front-seat screamer to keep the driver honest.

That said, Volvo engineers called this new crossover, “probably the safest car in the world … for sure the safest Volvo we’ve ever built.”

They have lasers to thank for much of that, and I’m not surprised. Those darn things are so versatile.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

 
 
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