In the blink of an eye, a 2019 Volvo XC90 with a man, woman, and child inside crashes into a pillar at 50 mph as a large crowd sipping sparkling wine collectively gasps and then cheer from above. It’s not a scene out of Death Race 2000; it’s a real-life simulation involving a sensor-strapped vehicle, crash-test dummies, and a gaggle of journalists inside the Volvo Car Safety Center. The state-of-the-art crash lab has been in operation for nearly two decades and the marque destroys hundreds of its own cars a year, a least one a day, in order to build safer vehicles.
Volvo’s reputation for being fanatical about safety took a step farther when the company pledged earlier this decade to eliminate passenger fatalities and serious injuries in its vehicles by 2020. Beyond developing its physical vehicles to be safer, Volvo also recently stated it will limit the top speed of all of its new vehicles to 112 mph and will introduce cameras and sensors into the cabin in order to monitor the driver’s eyes and face for distractions and intoxication. Eventually it would like to automatically control the speed of its vehicles in school zones and other high-traffic pedestrian areas.
The Swedish carmaker, which is owned by China’s Geely, is also introducing a “Care Key” that allows owners to set a speed limit for themselves, their family, or any others potential drivers. It will come as standard with all of Volvos in the 2021 model year. If this all sounds like a lot of Big Brother buzzkill to you, Volvo doesn’t want your business.
“We protect what’s import for us,” Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo CEO, explains. “I would rather attract a mother who wants to buy a car for her 17-year-old son, say, an XC40 with a Care Key with a speed limiter, than someone who wants to drive over 100 mph, zigzagging through traffic—they can take another brand and they probably already have,” he says. Samuelsson adds, “These are the guys who love V-8s and six-cylinders and we probably already have lost them”—Volvo has capped its engines at four cylinders—”so I am not so nervous that we will lose a lot of customers. But if we lose some, I am pretty sure we will gain more. It’s not just your life you are risking, you are risking other people on the streets.”
Volvo made these announcements during the 60th anniversary of its three-point safety belt innovation, which it was the first to introduce in 1959. The company believes that an industry speed cap will become standard eventually as we move toward a more autonomous driving experience in the coming decades. The brand is partnering with Nvida, Zenuity, and Luminar to help achieve its autonomous goals and build on its strong legacy of safety.
“We have always been on the forefront of putting new technology in our vehicles, which has some cost to it, before others [do],” said Henrik Green, Volvo R&D chief. “And other car companies have other core values that they prioritize, but we tend to spend more money on each vehicle in terms of safety functions and then the industry usually follows.”