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Volvo In-Car Camera Aims to Cut DUI Driving, Distraction in 2020s

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Volvo will put a nanny camera in its next generation of cars to keep you and others alive if you’re drunk, distracted, fall asleep, or have an unexpected ailment (heart attack) that renders you unable to drive competently. Combined with other sensors and software algorithms, the anti-distraction system would provide an escalating set of prompts and queries, ultimately slowing and then stopping the car and calling for assistance.

Already, several cars have distraction sensors that will suggest a coffee break. Some will slow and then stop the car, and at least one — Cadillac with Super Cruise — already has a camera onboard, aimed at your face that will do what Volvo is planning. This means Volvo isn’t the only technology leader, but it also means the haters (of controlled, also safer driving) will have to spew venom at multiple targets.

Volvo: “Dangerous behaviors have consequences.”

For years, Volvo has had a goal of zero deaths or serious injuries by 2020. That won’t happen, not in absolute terms. But Volvo and others are driving down, so to speak, the number of preventable accidents. Volvo has the fortunate combination of very safe cars and buyers who value safety and are less risky drivers. When was the last time you saw an XC90 burn rubber exiting the student pickup lot at Episcopal Friends Country Day School? Even if you did, you probably mouthed the words, “Somebody’s having an early onset midlife crisis.”

Care Key lets owners lend out their Volvo, with a capped top speed.

So far this year, Volvo has taken these safety steps:

  • As of 2020, Volvo will cap the top speed of Volvos at 180 km/h or 112 mph, still 27 mph faster than America’s highest posted speed limit. Cars sold under Volvo’s Polestar badge will not be affected as some of those people do track days. (Yes, it’s legal. This is America.) That’s for Volvos built on or after 2020. You won’t get your 2015 V60 wagon back from the dealer with a lower top speed.
  • Come 2021, a Volvo “Care Key” lets you, as a Volvo owner, set a capped top speed when you lend the car to your children or a friend. It is apparently a single top speed you can change depending on the person who gets the car. If so, it has the limitation of competitors’ “teen driver” settings — it is a single top speed and isn’t smart enough to know where the car is being driven. Most likely, beyond a capped top speed, you also want the driver to go no more than 3-5 mph over the posted limit or go 10-15 mph over for a couple of seconds (and if so, the car records and reports the variance). Care Key set to 70 mph max won’t do much for safety if your kid does 50 in a 35 zone. But it’s a start.
  • The driver distraction camera system, announced this week and set for the early 2020s.

Volvo’s PR photos show a pair of cameras in the upper left and right corners of the windshield (where a windshield visor might block them). Volvo said, “Details on the exact amount of cameras and their positioning in the interior will follow at a later stage,” adding, “Introduction of the cameras on all Volvo models will start on the next generation of Volvo’s scalable SPA2 vehicle platform in the early 2020s.” SPA is Volvo’s current Scalable Platform Architecture, meaning one overall structural architecture can be applied to multiple cars, wagons, and SUVs of different lengths. SPA2 will be the successor platform.

According to Volvo’s video (below), “Speeding, distraction and intoxication disturb driver reaction time. We can address this by lowering speed, alerting a driver to a threat, and by detecting an intoxicated driver.” Volvo doesn’t go into specifics other than it involves a camera (at the least, possibly steering wheel sensors), with information on the camera’s type and placement to be announced later. And while Volvo says intoxicated, we assume that means drunk or stoned. Cannabis-legal states could have serious auto safety issues in the near future.

Driver monitoring camera in a Volvo research vehicle, upper left. A second camera is on the far right of the windshield.

According to Henrik Green, senior VP of R&D at Volvo Cars, “When it comes to safety, our aim is to avoid accidents altogether rather than limit the impact when an accident is imminent and unavoidable. In this case, cameras will monitor for behavior that may lead to serious injury or death.”

Volvo says the capped speed limit and Car Key may save owners money based on the cars being less accident-prone. Volvo says:

Beyond the potential safety benefits, features like a speed limit and the Care Key are also likely to offer Volvo drivers a financial benefit. The company is currently inviting insurance companies in several markets to conversations to offer special, favorable insurance to the Volvo community using these safety features. Specific deals and terms will depend on local market circumstances, but Volvo Cars expects to announce the first of several agreements with national insurance firms soon.

It would be interesting if the insurance industry held to the fire the feet of Volvo, and others, and told them: “Okay, some discount for this, double the discount when you can cap speeds relative to the actual speed limit.” With super-precise maps and updated map data, which Volvo is also working on, it will be possible.

As for the “DUI camera,” which is what everyone will call the device, it does a lot more than rat out drunks, or slow them down and then stop them. It should also have a positive impact on drivers who get sleepy on a long trip, or after a long lunch, or after the two drinks that don’t make you legally intoxicated but do make you slower to react.

One of the first customers for a distraction/DUI/stoner camera will be convicted drunks who’re allowed, say, a limited license to go to and from work if their driving is monitored. If Volvo’s system is really good, it will be an affordable way to monitor the driver’s condition and assure the probation department that he or she used the car for work commuting only.

The biggest market will be the rest of us, who say we’re good drivers, when we’re average at best, and do get distracted or sleepy, or have enough to drink for our driving skills to be degraded regardless of whether we’re legally under the influence.

Watch the Volvo video for details. Watch especially at 0:56 when the car needs to slow then stop and — the miracle of video — a pull-off area appears a second later.

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