As someone who has worked both sides of the street in the automotive industry – as a corporate insider and as a journalist – I can only imagine the anger and dejection emanating from the ranks of Volvo’s senior executive management right about now.
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Twenty-five per cent of demonstrations held for Australian media of its pedestrian-detecting and automatic braking technology went horribly awry last week – with the Volvo cleaning up the pedestrian-simulating dummy in the most public of ways. Not once, but three times.
You can read our news story on that here.

Worryingly, the latest botched Volvo auto-braking demonstration piggybacks a similar auto-braking fumble of its earlier iteration called City Safety – which was designed to prevent low-speed rear-enders in traffic. That event – also a media fiasco – saw Volvo jam one of its own vehicles into the blunt end of a truck at a speed sufficient to cause significant damage, and showcasing exactly the kind of crash the system was designed to prevent.

This is certainly a case – okay, two cases – of extreme embarrassment, writ large, for the struggling Chinese-owned carmaker. Volvo PR departments globally are doubtless in full-tilt damage-control mode. Volvo’s long-held unique brand proposition – leading automotive safety – has taken a major hit.

Media events are, generally, painstakingly stage-managed. It’s almost inconceivable that this kind of thing could happen – twice. In both cases, Volvo has offered technical explanations to explain away the problem.

In the first case, the truck crash, Volvo’s boffins claimed that a flat battery immediately prior to the demonstration had inadvertently shut down the City Safety system. It has since reported the implementation of a software update that prevents that glitch from occurring today.

In this most recent event, in which a pedestrian-simulating dummy suffered what one witness called “sickening” impacts that would almost certainly have broken bones, the problem was purportedly Volvo’s failure to set the dummy up properly – resulting in what the company called a poor radar echo. In other words, the ‘pedestrian’ and not the car was wrong…
One participant in the demonstration said the event took place in otherwise ideal conditions. At a location selected and tightly controlled by Volvo…

It all begs two obvious questions: What will the efficacy of the pedestrian-detecting system be when it finally gets ‘out there’ on roads in Australia? What must an unwitting pedestrian do to set themselves up properly for the approaching Volvo? In other words, how often will it actually work in reality?

I visited Volvo’s headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden, last February, and helped cover the new pedestrian-braking technology for a Today Tonight exclusive. In the sub-zero Nordic winter it performed flawlessly – and it was very, very impressive.

However, at the time, Volvo’s experts would not allow us to stand in place of the mannequins set up in front of the approaching vehicle. Back then, I thought this was an unnecessary, over-zealous and cynical prohibition because it would have made for fantastic TV viewing. And, come to think of it, even better viewing if one or both of us had gotten himself cleaned up… (This was well before the two botched braking jobs above, remember.) Now, I’m not so sure how wise it would have been to stand there – in fact, lately I endorse the Volvo safety overseers’ ‘can’t stand there’ directive wholeheartedly.

I came away from that story mightily impressed – and pleased for the small Swedish manufacturer. In my mind it appeared still to occupy the moral high ground of safety-technology, despite the ongoing assaults of the likes of Audi and Mercedes-Benz, whose R&D resources eclipse Volvo’s by a considerable margin, and who would both enjoy swatting Volvo into an insignificant backwater by eclipsing it on safety technology in the minds of the masses.

To me, the Volvo technology, which was laid out exhaustively in presentations and interviews, seemed to have come virtually directly from an Apache helicopter. It still does (and if you’re into that sort of thing, you must read Ed Macy’s book ‘Apache’, which is un-putdownable).

Despite enough egg to make an omelette with its own postcode currently dripping from a bunch of Swedish faces, many with PhDs, I’m still convinced Volvo’s auto braking technology is a real step forward. Drivers (ex-wives aside) don’t generally set out to mow down pedestrians. I’m sure it comes as something as a shock when that actually happens – to become aware you have hit a pedestrian because you see them exploding upwards, off the windscreen. It must be an utterly shocking experience, one of which I hope never to have firsthand knowledge.

Anything that has the potential to reduce that trauma – currently about one-eighth of the Australian road toll – gets a big, fat tick in my book. You can bet that, like most fledgling automotive technology, the current generation of auto-braking will be rapidly improved. You might, for example, compare first-generation ABS systems to today’s electronic stability control – there is a direct DNA-type link between the two, and a gap of about a decade (depending how you measure it).

Innovating is a potentially dangerous game, but it must be remembered that Volvo’s list of safety innovations, which is longer than not just your arm but several arms, has saved millions of lives. You can bet that plenty of car makers will lunch off (and historically have lunched off) Volvo’s past safety advances – simply by buying mature technology off the shelf, at no risk to their own brand’s integrity.

It’s also essential to remember that even if the system fails 25 per cent of the time in practise (unlikely) then it will still save 75 per cent of the pedestrians who would otherwise have been cleaned up by driver inattention at the worst possible time and place. Personally I would advise an intending buyer to tick the box for this technology despite this recent demonstration snafu. It is, after all, just a failsafe for a driver who fails to perceive a pedestrian, for whatever reason.
You can bet that there is a race right now to put more robust versions of that technology into play – and it will be interesting to see how that plays out over coming years, and which brand emerges on top.

The other salient point here is that getting a tsunami of egg on your face is often good for your soul if you’re a carmaker, inasmuch as car companies have souls. History shows us as much.
Thirteen years ago Mercedes-Benz released a revolutionary new vehicle. Called the A Class, most people were surprised by the prestige automaker’s introduction of such a compact car. But its biggest advance was also its Achilles’ heel. It was designed around a thing called a ‘Sandwich’ structure, which was an advanced packaging concept that featured a raised floor. It was an ingenious execution (in part) that really boosted the vehicle’s frontal crash performance and offered that advanced protection despite its compact forward dimensions.

Unfortunately, because everything in life is a ‘good news/bad news’ story, the A Class’s cutting-edge design was also its fatal flaw: it was just too easy to park one on its roof. All you had to do was swerve.

Almost 13 years ago today, Swedish journalist Robert Collin performed a ‘moose test’ (swerve-and-avoid manoeuver) at a conservative speed in an A Class, with passengers aboard. It rolled and crashed violently, injuring those aboard.

‘PR nightmare’ doesn’t begin to describe the event, which stunned the automotive world and consumers, and damaged Benz’s reputation for years. Orders were cancelled by the scores – and you can only imagine how that goes over in boardrooms. Backpedalling furiously, the wounded company recalled the A Class, added wider tyres and ESP (at the time a very new invention), lowered the car and added beefier (and aptly named) anti-roll bars. Then, in full-tilt ‘image salvaging’ mode, it splashed millions of marketing dollars across the globe, invited the journos who survived the initial rollover event to sample the new car, and used charred-but-credible former Formula One ace Nikki Lauda in an A Class ambassadorial and advertorial capacity.

Incredibly, despite virtual exsanguination, Benz’s and the A Class’s reputations recovered. Even more incredibly, the A Class even went on to become Germany’s top-selling car. If nothing else this proves that people, collectively, have short memories – especially if sufficient strategic cash is splashed about the place.

You’d hope the senior execs at Volvo could take some consolation from history in all of this – seeing as their problem is significantly smaller than Benz’s was 13 years ago. In this situation, I suspect any lifeline, no matter how tenuous, must seem like a godsend.

What do you think? In light of this year’s recent events, would you trust Volvo’s auto-braking technologies? Is the company still offering the safest thing on four wheels?