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Look, Ma… No Hands! (Not Even a Driver)

“Cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is and must remain safety.”

So said Volvo’s co-founders, Assar Gabrielsson and Gustav Larson, way back in 1927. And the company’s certainly lived up to that lofty mission statement.

The Swedish carmaker has amassed one of the best safety reputations in the auto industry, thanks to its groundbreaking inventions. For example…

  • Today’s common 3-Point Safety Belt (which combines a regular shoulder-to-hip belt with a belt that stretches across the lap). This was the work of Volvo engineer, Nils Bohlin, in 1958. He was granted a patent for it, but made it available to other automakers for free.
  • Volvo invented the Side Impact Protection System (SIPS), designed to deflect the impact of a crash away from the doors (and people) onto the safety cage instead.
  • The side airbags you find in cars these days were Volvo’s creation back in 1995.
  • In 1998, Volvo invented the Whiplash Protection System (WHIPS) in seats, which protects passengers in the front seat when the car is hit from behind.
  • In 2004, Volvo invented the Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), which uses door lenses to monitor a driver’s blind spot and alerts them to any danger.

But 85 years after that mission statement, Volvo has a new, even bigger safety goal…

Volvo’s Driving Paradox: Hands-Free… And Accident-Free

Head of Volvo’s Government Affairs, Anders Eugensson, says: “Our vision is that no one is killed or injured in a new Volvo by 2020.”

And thanks to some pretty remarkable technology, it aims to do so without cars being “driven by people.”

Yep, that’s right… driverless cars.

After all, “In the United States, driver error… is a factor in at least 60% of fatal crashes,” according to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration.

Now you may have heard about Google’s (GOOG) foray into the driverless area. Back in October 2010, the company announced that it was working on the technology, which uses sensors, lasers and cameras, both inside and outside the car. So far, its car has logged 300,000 miles with no accidents. And as my colleague, Justin Fritz, reported earlier this year, Nevada became the first state to let Google test-drive its driverless cars on the open road. It followed up by granting the first driverless car license.

So this isn’t crazy, pie-in-the-sky stuff.

But Volvo wants to be the first to actually get its driverless technology to the market by 2014… en route to having a fully operational, accident-free fleet by 2020. With the help of some cash from the European Union, the company has 50 of its brightest engineering boffins on the project.

The key is that its technology goes a step further by connecting cars wirelessly via the internet, assigning them specific points on the road and communicating with each other, so they can move accordingly. And Volvo is getting ready to release its first set of automated cars, capable of going 31 mph.

I know… that’s hardly dizzying. But they’re initially intended for heavy traffic and jams. So rather than sit and stew, you can do something else while the car takes over. The company is currently working on driverless cars at higher speeds – around 53 mph – which are currently logging thousands of test miles.

It’s an intriguing concept – especially given the way some people drive these days!

Volvo needs the boost, too. Amid sales of just 436,000 cars in 2011 and a projected decline this year, the company is in the red. Its revival bid includes a recent change of CEO and spending $11 billion on a five-year overhaul of its existing fleet. It’s also raising money to expand its manufacturing plants and will build cars in China in 2013, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But in addition, Volvo’s plan also includes some ambitious, forward-thinking, innovative vision.

A vision of nothing… at least not behind the wheel of cars!

History has shown time and again that innovation drives growth – and profits. Volvo wants its venture into the driverless world to be the new innovation that enriches its already proud safety record – and revitalizes its bottom line, too.

Ahead of the tape,

Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

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