Volvo Has An Accident

……. but not the one you thought!

Jim Reisert reported in Risks 28.66 ( Volvo horrible self-parking car accident) on a story in fusion.net on 2015-05-26 about a video of an accident with a Volvo car, apparently performing a demo in the Dominican Republic. The fusion.net story is by Kashmir Hill. Hill says “….[the video] is terrifying“. The video is linked/included in the piece.

The video shows a Volvo car in a wide garage-like area, slowly backing up, with people standing around, including in front of the vehicle. The car stops, begins to move forward in a straight line, accelerates, and hits people who did not attempt to move out of the way. Occupants are clearly visible in the car. The video is about half a minute long.

I didn’t find it terrifying at all. At first glance, I found it puzzling. Why didn’t people move out of the way? They had time.

Fusion reports comments from Volvo. I looked the story up using Google. Lots of articles, many of them derivative, and a reference to Andrew Pam’s corrective comment in Risks 28.67. From the better articles (in my judgement), one would crudely understand:

  • The car was being driven. What you see is not automatic.
  • It wasn’t a demo of self-parking. It was a purported demo of a collision-avoidance function.
  • The other-car collision-avoidance function is standard; the pedestrian-collision-avoidance function is an optional extra.
  • The demo car was not equipped with this optional function.

However, many of the articles still have “self-parking” in the headline or as part of the URL, and journalists asked why other-car collision-avoidance is standard, but pedestrian-collision-avoidance an optional extra. Surely, some journalists expect us to conclude, it would be more reasonable the other way around?

What Volvo actually said in response to journalists’ queries seems to be reasonable (see below). But they appear not to be controlling the narrative, and that is their accident. The narrative appears to be that they have a self-parking car which may instead accelerate into passers-by unless it is equipped with a $3,000 extra system to avoid doing so. And this is demonstrated on video. And this narrative is highly misleading.

Other-car/truck detection and avoidance is nowadays relatively straightforward. These objects are big and solid, have lots of metal and smooth plastic which reflects all kinds of electromagnetic and sound waves, and they behave in relatively physically-limited ways. People, on the other hand, are soft and largely non-metallic, with wave-absorbent outer gear, and indulge in, ahem, random walks. It’s a harder detection problem, and it is thereby much harder to do it reliably – you need absolutely no false negatives, and false positives are going to annoy driver and occupants. Such kit inevitably costs something.

But there is a laudable aspect to this commentary. Some, even many, journalists apparently think that pedestrian-collision avoidance systems should be standard, and are more important than other-car collision avoidance. I wish everybody thought like that!

Ten years ago, almost nobody did. I recall an invited talk by a senior staff member of a major car company at the SAFECOMP conference in Potsdam in 2004, about their collision-avoidance/detection/automatic-communication-and-negotiation systems and research. 45 minutes about how they were dealing with other vehicles. I asked what they were doing about pedestrians and bicycles. A 5-second reply: they were working on that too.

Pedestrians are what the OECD calls “vulnerable road users”. While accident rates and severities have been decreasing overall for some years, accident rates and severities for vulnerable road users have not – indeed, in some places they have been increasing. Here is a report from 17 years ago. The Apollo program, which is joint between the WHO and the EU, has a policy briefing ten years later (2008).

I am mostly a “vulnerable road user”. I have no car. My personal road transport is a pedelec. Otherwise it’s bus or taxi. Bicycle and pedelec road users need constantly to be aware of other road users travelling too fast for the conditions and posted speed limits, too close to you, and about to cut you off when you have right of way. As well as occasional deliberately aggressive drivers. All of which is annoying when you’re sitting inside another well-padded and designedly-collapsible shell, but means serious injury or death if you’re not.

I am all for people thinking that vulnerable-road-user detection and avoidance systems should be standard equipment on automotive road vehicles.

There are similar reports to that in Fusion also in:

as well as elsewhere. I like Caldwell’s Slashgear article far more than the others.

Andrew Del-Colle deals out a lengthy corrective in both Road & Track and in Popular Mechanics.

Three Volvo spokespeople are quoted in these articles: Johan Larsson (Fusion, and derivatively The Independent), Stefan Elfstroem (Slashgear and Money) and Russell Datz (Daily Mail). Volvo’s comment is approximately:

  • The car was equipped with a system called “City Safe” which maintains distance from other cars.
  • City Safe also offers a pedestrian-detection system, which requires additional equipment and costs extra money
  • The car was not equipped with this additional system
  • The car appears to be performing a demo. It is being driven.
  • The demo appears to be that of City Safe, not of the self-parking function.
  • The car was apparently being driven in such a way that neither of these systems was operational: the human driver accelerates “heavily” forwards.
  • When an active driver accelerates forwards like this, the detection-and-braking functions are not active – they are “overridden” by the driver command to accelerate
  • Volvo recommends never to perform such tests on real humans

All very sensible.

One major problem which car manufacturers are going to have is that, with more and more protective systems on cars, there are going to be more and more people “trying them out” like this. Or following what John Adams calls “risk homeostatis”, in driving less carefully while relying on the protective functions to avoid damage to themselves and others. I am also sure all the manufacturers are quite aware of this.