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New Volvo system spots pedestrians, cyclists 

Image: Volvo sensors
Volvo's system uses a combination of radar and vision sensors to spot obstacles.Volvo

Volvo is launching a new safety system capable of spotting not only pedestrians but even bicyclists weaving in and out of traffic.

The latest update of the maker’s well-regarded City Safety technology, the system is designed to sound an alert if it spots a potential collision. But it’s also capable of bringing the vehicle to an abrupt halt, if necessary, should the driver be distracted or not respond in time.

The initial version of City Safety, first launched in 2010, was designed to look for other cars, but Volvo has taken advantages of advances in vision processing, data crunching and software to continually update the system, which uses both a camera hidden on the windshield side of the rearview mirror and a radar sensor in the vehicle’s grille.

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“By covering more and more objects and situations, we reinforce our world-leading position within automotive safety. We keep moving towards our long-term vision to design cars that do not crash," said Doug Speck, Volvo’s Senior Vice President Marketing, Sales and Customer Service.

The maker said its next goal is an update that can spot large animals, such as horses and deer. Eventually, it would like to even spot and react when smaller animals enter the road.

The system operates at the relatively slow speeds a motorist would be driving in an urban area. The two-sensor system uses the radar to detect and track potential obstacles, while the camera determines precisely what they are. A central microprocessor then decides how to respond.

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Volvo officials stress that they don’t want motorists to use the technology as an excuse to shift their attention – say to texting. They’ve intentionally designed the alert system to be intrusive and when it is necessary, the brakes are applied aggressively enough to be uncomfortable in routine driving.

Nonetheless, the original City Safety system and more recent updates have generated strongly favorable reactions, insurance studies suggesting it is effective at reducing frontal collisions – enough so that some insurance companies now offer discounts to owners of products from Volvo and other makers using similar technology.

Experts are particularly pleased with the potential for reducing collisions with those on foot or on bicycle. A total of 4,280 pedestrians were killed in vehicle-related incidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2010, the most recent year for which full reports are available. Another 70,000 were injured, accounting for 13% of all traffic fatalities. That compared with 11% between 2002 and 2007. That reflects both the increase in pedestrian crashes as well as the decline in overall motor vehicle fatalities.

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In Europe, where the Chinese-owned maker is still based, research shows that half of all cyclist fatalities involve a collision with a motor vehicle.

Volvo plans to begin offering what it now will call Pedestrian and Cyclist Protection with full auto brake on more than half of its current line-up, including the V40, S60, V60, XC60, V70, XC70 and S80 models, starting in mid-May 2013.

Pricing will vary by market, though the system is expected to come in somewhere around $2,000 in the U.S. market. Motorists may be able to recover some of that if they get a discount from their insurance carriers.