Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Caught on video, a perplexing collision raises questions about how to regulate automated features.
A perplexing video has been making the Internet rounds this week: In what seems to be an attempt at demonstrating the car’s automated braking system, a Volvo XC60 is seen plowing into two men standing directly in its path. The YouTube post, by Dominican culture site Remolacha.net, mentions that the bystanders were bruised but otherwise uninjured in the bizarre collision.
The footage raises many questions. Did Volvo’s best-selling model fail to perform advertised safety functions in a fairly controlled setting? And why were those dudes just standing there, hands in pockets, as a several tons of steel hurtled towards them?
According to the blunt response a Volvo spokesperson gave to Fusion, the first answer is no. “It seems they are trying to demonstrate pedestrian detection and auto-braking,” Johan Larsson wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, there were some issues in the way the test was conducted.”
The key issue, besides the obvious fact of a person standing in the path of a moving vehicle, was that the car in the video doesn’t seem to be equipped with “pedestrian detection” at all, according to Larsson. That radar-and-video-enabled feature comes separate from the standard “City Safety” system, which automatically hits the brakes if the car is about to rear-end another one at 30 mph or less (which the Volvo in reference likely exceeded as it accelerated, thereby de-activating the system). If Volvo drivers want their cars programmed to notice human beings, it’ll cost them roughly $3,000 extra.
For a safety-conscious company like Volvo to charge that much more for a pedestrian protection calls for some healthy side-eye. Of course, none of this explains why those people were so unmotivated to move as the XC60 zoomed at them. How much more of this painful confusion are we likely to witness as manufacturers roll out semi- and fully autonomous vehicles? And could regulations help clear some of it up? As we move towards a world where cars are fully automated, the protective features Volvo is currently peddling as pricey add-ons should come standard, the way seat-belts and airbags do today. It’s the federal government’s job to make it so.
Certainly, the line between partial and total automation in new cars is fuzzy, and with little federal intervention so far, so are safety standards. The only thing certain is something we learn as small children: Never stand in the path of a moving car.