Update: Volvo S60 Review.
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Volvo’s new safety technology – pedestrian detection with automatic braking – has, inconveniently, been marred by its failure to prevent impact in tightly controlled demonstrations in Europe.

A number of significant crashes took place during the botched demonstrations, which were conducted for ‘photo opportunity’ purposes at a press event held for the Australian media last week.

In total, 25 per cent – or one in four – of the Australian media’s demonstration runs saw the new Volvo S60 violently clean up a simulated pedestrian with enough force to cause significant trauma in a live pedestrian.

One Australian participant in the botched tests described the simulated pedestrian impacts as taking place with “sickening force” and in a manner that “would almost certainly have been a bone-breaking impact” if the pedestrian had been a real person.

The demonstrations, held in Europe, used a mannequin (jovially named ‘Bob’) in place of a person – thankfully. In one run, a Volvo instructor was driving and in the others journalists were at the wheel, with a Volvo instructor carefully monitoring the approach speed. In two of the tests, apparently, the system recognized ‘Bob’ much too late to avoid impact despite approach speed being within the system’s impact-avoidance limits. In the third test, it’s claimed, the system failed to recognize ‘Bob’ at all.

The pedestrian-braking system uses radar, a camera and advanced software to deal with – or not, as it happens – the serious problem of pedestrian impact, which comprises about one-eighth of Australia’s road toll. If the system reacts and the speed it too high, Volvo claims impact will be unavoidable – but at least speed and therefore trauma will be ameliorated.

According to respected Australian motoring journalist Steve Colquhoun, after the first crash a Volvo spokesperson initially alleged that a tractor and trailer parked approximately 30 metres behind ‘Bob’ might have confused the system. Mr Colquhoun says that a further two impacts with ‘Bob’ took place after the tractor/trailer combination had been removed – including the run in which the automatic system did not react to ‘Bob’s’ presence at all.

The event is certainly an embarrassing one for Volvo, which claims that in total around 650 media participated in the week-long demonstration – with a claimed 99.7 per cent success rate – the nature of the failed 0.3 per cent of runs appears to be undisclosed.

While Volvo’s position remains that the fledgling technology is unable to prevent all pedestrian impacts, in part because the system’s effectiveness is compromised by low light and/or inclement weather, Mr Colquhoun has reported that the demonstration was conducted in, apparently, ideal conditions – and on a test track carefully selected by the company for this sole purpose.

In a subsequent statement Jonas Pisell, who manages Volvo’s active safety systems claimed: “The failure of the test was due to the dummy not being set up properly.” He described the dummy as: “not relevant in this situation”. Video of one of the three demonstration crashes shows the dummy clearly in front of the evaluation vehicle.

This is not the first time a Volvo automatic braking demonstration has gone horribly – and very publicly – wrong. Volvo has had an appalling run with demonstrations of its automatic braking technology in 2010. Earlier this year, in another international media demonstration held in Volvo’s homeland – Sweden – its rear-end collision prevention system dubbed City Safety failed to deploy, causing the demonstration vehicle to plow into the rear of a truck. It suffered significant damage. After that mishap the company claimed the malfunction was due to a low-voltage event in the vehicle’s electrical system, and has (it claims) fixed the flawed software that allowed the City Safety system’s un-commanded shutdown to occur.