There were about 35,000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. last year. They are decreasing rapidly, but it is shocking nonetheless that an auto maker has made public its internal plan to eliminate all deaths and serious injuries in its vehicles just 10 years from now.

That’s a little over two product cycles away for most auto makers. The goal seems particularly ironic at a time when Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s largest auto maker, is struggling with a safety crisis caused by mundane mechanical problems such as ill-fitting floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals.

Yet, that’s exactly what Volvo Car Corp. is setting out to do. Many auto makers are implementing similar technologies and some are eying a comparable goal internally, but none has been as public as Volvo.

“Zero is the one and only alternative for us. As the leader in car safety, we can’t accept that people are killed or injured just because they want to transport themselves from A to B,” says Jan Ivarsson, Volvo’s senior manager-safety strategy and requirements.

Most major auto makers are reluctant to comment on Volvo’s plan, even those working with the Swedish auto maker on joint safety research projects in Europe.

But Hyundai Motor America Inc. CEO John Krafcik is outspoken about the value of such an audacious objective.

“It’s a bold position, and we’re going to be working on it, so stay tuned,” Krafcik says in an address at the American International Automobile Dealers Assn.’s annual meeting during the recent National Automobile Dealers Assn. meeting in Orlando, FL.

“Volvo has done an excellent job setting the safety bar high as an internal rallying cry. Volvo has turned it from an internal thing to a major external part of their product positioning. It’s what their brand is all about,” Krafcik tells Ward’s.

But while it may be a great marketing theme, how realistic is the target of totally eliminating vehicle fatalities? Studies show 93% of all accidents involve driver error, whether it is texting, tailgating or simply being inattentive.

Compensating for driver deficiencies requires complex vehicle electronics that can take control of the vehicle in an emergency. But the reliability of electronic systems is under fire by the U.S. Congress and plaintiff attorneys in the Toyota unintended sudden-acceleration controversy.

And then there are the legal issues, especially in the highly litigious U.S. market. Might well-intentioned safety measures turn into huge lawsuits if a few occupants end up dying as a result of systems failures?

Experts say auto makers must keep forging ahead regardless, or risk becoming irrelevant.

“It’s realistic in the sense that the goal reminds us that people do not die for no reason in car crashes. There are physical principles that govern how they lost their lives,” says Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“We can figure out how to prevent virtually every fatality out there. That doesn’t mean we will be able to achieve that, but it is good to remind us that it was not inevitable that somebody died,” Lund says.

As far as product liability lawsuits go, Lund says auto makers know they likely are to be sued whenever there is a crash involving a death or serious injury.

“It comes back to how much do auto makers really protect themselves if they don’t put this technology in. The fact is they need to put the technology in to show they are leaders and they are making products consumers should buy,” Lund says.

For the record, Toyota engineers say vehicle electronics are not behind its sudden acceleration issue. “We want you to consider the science, rather than the suggestion,” says spokesman John Hanson.

Paul Williamsen, national manager-Lexus College, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., says electronic throttles and engine control units have multiple systems and sensors to detect malfunctions. If faults occur, the system automatically returns the engine to idle speed and even shuts it down in extreme cases.

If a malfunction were to occur that prompted the engine to race unexpectedly, it would cause the engine to go into a low-power limp-home mode or shut down entirely within fractions of a second, Williamsen says.

It also would generate a fault code that easily could be accessed from the engine’s electronic controller by a technician. However, such fault codes have not been retrieved in accident investigations.

Addressing the issue of electromagnetic interference, Kristen Tabar, general manager of electronic systems-Toyota Technical Center, says the auto maker and its suppliers test all electronics both as individual parts and onboard fully built-up vehicles to ensure they are immune to all known ranges of electromagnetic energy coming from outside and inside the vehicle.

Much of the testing is done in a special chamber, about half the size of a gymnasium, where vehicles and components are bombarded with a huge array of energy frequencies.

“Our chamber measurements are sometimes hundreds of times worse than what you would encounter in the real-world environment,” says Tabar.

No one outside Toyota will comment directly on the Japanese auto maker’s electronics troubles, but Hyundai’s Krafcik dismisses the idea auto makers might start cutting back on advanced electronic systems because of concerns about their reliability.

“I think it’s a Luddite’s argument to go that way because everyone forgets that when we had mechanical linkages, there were recalls. It’s certainly a different FMEA (failure mode and effects analysis) that engineers need to think about, but I think on average we have a much better set of outcomes with electronics than without,” Krafcik says.

Ivarsson points out a lot of the technologies Volvo and other auto makers are putting into vehicles, such as radar and camera systems, first were developed in aerospace and military applications, where reliability and immunity from hazards such as electromagnetic radiation are even more crucial.

These new technologies represent the industry’s shift from merely protecting occupants to preventing crashes or mitigating the consequences of an impact. Volvo’s vehicle-safety strategy currently includes five phases:

  • Normal. Driver is well-informed and alert.
  • Conflict. Technology helps the driver handle a difficult situation.
  • Avoidance. Vehicle acts automatically to avoid a collision if the driver fails to react.
  • Damage reduction. Vehicle safety systems help to reduce crash energy in order to minimize damage and injury.
  • After collision. Vehicle automatically calls for assistance and facilitates rescue.

Volvo’s latest safety system detects pedestrians in the vehicle’s path and automatically will bring the car to a stop if the driver does not respond to warning signals. It debuts this year on the new C60 sedan.

A growing number of auto makers have, or are planning, similar systems, which promises good near-term safety results.

If they are widely adopted, IIHS says forward collision warning and mitigation systems have the potential to prevent up to 210,000 non-fatal injury crashes and 7,166 fatal crashes each year, while lane-departure warning systems could eliminate or mitigate up to 483,000 crashes per year, including 87,000 non-fatal injury and 10,345 fatal collisions.

Blind-spot detection and emergency brake assist could prevent 457,000 and 417,000 crashes per year, respectively, according to the IIHS.

“What we are doing is we are greatly reducing the risk that someone dies in a motor vehicle crash. We do it by making the vehicle safer if you do crash and increasingly making the vehicle less likely to crash in the first place. The most notable technology in that regard is electronic stability control,” says IIHS’ Lund.

“We are seeing more than a 50% reduction in single-vehicle fatal crashes with vehicles that have ESC. Even in crashes that are not serious, we are seeing a 20% reduction in collision damage,” says Lund.

ESC is particularly effective in preventing young, inexperienced drivers from crashing, and teenage drivers have the highest crash rates by far, says Lund.

ESC is required to be standard on all light vehicles beginning in 2012, but other advanced electronic safety devices such as lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and others are not, leading some consumers to complain only the wealthy are able to drive the safest cars.

During a presentation at a recent technical conference, Dean McConnell, director-North America Chassis and Safety Div. for Continental AG, counters that notion, pointing out the average retail cost of safety features such as lane-departure warning ($550) and blind-spot monitoring ($400) is less than the average price of many comfort and convenience features such as leather seats ($800) or a high-end audio system ($1,000).

Even so, the average cost of adaptive cruise control, which is the foundation for automatic braking and crash mitigation systems, still is a prohibitive $2,200.

However, a Continental spokeswoman says as volume increases, safety system costs will come down and more of these features will be available in entry-level vehicles.

“Hyundai is a great example of a company that is installing safety systems in affordable cars,” she says.

Conquering the infrastructure and demographic issues that pose safety risks, such as increasingly congested roads and a growing number of elderly drivers, may be more challenging than the vehicle technology issues, Volvo’s Ivarrson says.

Volvo is tackling these broad issues by partnering with numerous other organizations that have a societal stake in eliminating traffic fatalities, from research universities throughout the world to local and federal governments.

“We at Volvo on our own can’t do this because we need knowledge from the community and researchers both in Sweden and the U.S., England, Germany, France and so on,” he says. “And in some cases we also need to understand the responsibility that society has around this goal.”

By this he means government authorities may have to play a stronger role in limiting the driving privileges of the very elderly, those who abuse drugs and alcohol or prove to be reckless.

Better roads and infrastructure also are a key element of Volvo’s zero fatality strategy, including replacing more intersections with roundabouts and better signs and lane markings that allow safety system cameras and sensors to detect them more easily.

Future cars must be able to communicate and exchange data with the infrastructure and other vehicles as well, Ivarsson says, and how this will be done still needs to be worked out.

The auto maker also is collaborating with the Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute to study elderly drivers’ visual search behaviors at intersections.

Volvo researchers say the elderly are not inherently less observant at intersections than other drivers. But they say there is a difference in how seniors position their vehicles and move their head and eyes, and these factors need to be understood better.

Volvo also is participating in a major European field study with other auto makers to research how drivers react in various situations. About 100 Volvos are equipped with cameras inside and outside the vehicle, as well as data recorders that log almost every element of driver actions and reactions to everyday incidents.

The 18-month study is expected to yield huge amounts of data on how to prevent situations that could lead to crashes.

“We are working very hard with this goal and we think we are heading in the right direction, but we cannot solve every type of situation,” Ivarsson says. Government authorities also will have to play a role in keeping dangerous drivers off the road and helping the infrastructure work with vehicle systems in order to create a safer environment.

“Our aim is to come so close to zero that one single car accident is defined as a disaster, not an acceptable part of our daily lives,” he says.

Continental’s McConnell points out that in 2008, the latest year there is exact data, motor-vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death in the U.S. for every age from 3 to 6 years, and 8 through 34.

If Volvo and other auto makers can make a dent in those numbers by 2020, they will have done a huge service to mankind.

– with Tom Murphy

dwinter@wardsauto.com