Forget the gadgets, just let me see

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It’s billed as a $10 million James Bond-mobile. The Volvo Safety Concept Car is loaded with beepers, video cameras, video screens and computers. But as is often the case with new, brash technology demos, the car’s digital gadgetry is mostly gimmickry. Bond wouldn’t be impressed. But your insurance agent might be. Despite all the lights, beeps and computer chips, the car’s most impressive features come from old-fashioned engineering enhancements.

VOLVO HAS BEEN shuttling its “Safety Concept Car” around the country for the better part of a year, and this week it was Seattle’s turn. It’s curvy, flashy, very red and very electronic.

Sit in the driver’s seat, and an eye sensor adjusts the seat, floor, steering wheel, console and floor pedals for optimal comfort and accessibility. Stray over the center line on the highway, and a beeper warns you.

Headlight beams narrow for longer, better night vision on the highway; a wider beam is used when you slow down, to help you see a wider swath of territory. And the beam turns with your steering wheel. Preston Tucker would be proud.

Want to see if the kids in the back are fighting? No need to turn around; a video screen on the dash shows a live image of the back seat skirmish. Tailgating? The car will yell at you. Trying to change lanes without using a signal? Tsk-tsk-tsk. Or rather, beep, beep, beep. The car knows. In fact, the car theoretically could radio the transgression to a nearby cop, but engineer Mikael Edvardssun said the firm would never add that feature (“We just saw ‘Minority Report.’”)

But if you even think about changing lanes with a car on your side, screech-screech-screech. A combination of video and radar tell the car about hazards in front and on the sides, offering the driver an extra helping of information to prevent accidents.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. The $10 million electronic roadster I test drove Tuesday did all those things. But, as expected, it was often a bit over-eager, blearing a few unnecessary warnings as it imagined hazards ahead and to the side. Such false positives happen, admitted Edvardssun, when you’re working with a prototype. Problem is, it only takes a few false positives before drivers would quickly learn to ignore the warnings.

Edvardssun, a Sweden-based Volvo engineer, was refreshingly blunt while discussing Volvo’s let’s-try-everything concept car. Digital devices can enhance safety, but they can give drivers a false sense of security, too.

“You can make the car much safer, but you can give the driver a sense that the car is bullet proof,” and no car will ever be, he said. Antilock brakes, for example, which prevent car wheels from freezing when a driver hits the brake hard, have long been the subject of debate among safety engineers. Some argue the brakes encourage people to drive faster.


But the concept behind the concept car is solid: It’s all about giving a driver more information, or more specifically, a better view. I found its most impressive feature the see-through “A-pillar” — that’s the post between the windshield and the driver’s side door. Volvo engineers created a lattice shape for the pillar, with plenty of see-through clear glass. It’s remarkable how much that broadens the driver’s vision.

“The lattice structure is actually very strong,” Edvardssun said, so there’s no sacrifice in structural integrity in case of a front collision or rollover.

The pillar directly behind the driver, which separates the driver’s door and the rear door, has also been moved, so it appears to sit directly behind your left shoulder. It nearly eliminates the “blind spot” which can be blamed for so many driving mishaps. The driver has a field of vision that’s over 180 degrees.

It might sound like a slight change, but sitting in the driver’s seat, it feels dramatic — it’s not unlike the sense of broader vision you get when you remove a pair of sunglasses, or a motorcycle helmet.

And with this in mind, some of the the concept car’s other features begin to make sense. The automatic seat adjustment, for example, is more about vision than comfort. If an engineer knows where a driver’s eyes will be, sight lines can be improved.


These are the more mundane aspects of driver’s safety, considerably less fun than technology that lets a car drive itself (and this one sort of can, thanks to that lane-change sensor) — but ultimately, far more worthwhile.

“We didn’t really want to add features,” said Edvardssun standing over the $10 million mountain of electronics — the irony not lost on him. The firm just wants to add safety, he said.

You can tell that even inside Volvo, the tension between tried and true engineering and electronic wizardry rears its head. Despite all the display screens and cameras, the car’s speedometer, gas gauge, and other primary instrumentation use old fashioned analog dials. Designers considered, and rejected, an all-digital display like the i-Drive system now found in high-end BMWs, Edvardssun said.

“The designers said without analog dials, it isn’t a car anymore,” he said.


Of course, the car does have its share of neato gizmos. The neatest is the “Volvo Personal Communicator,” a device the size of a cell phone that locks and unlocks the car based on fingerprint recognition. But it does much more: Thanks to wireless technology, it can sense if someone is inside the car, or even leaning on it, and warn the owner — even if the owner is eating in a restaurant. It can even tell if a child has accidentally been left behind inside the car.

The technology that scans the outside environment for hazards is impressive, too, and Edvardssun said it’s the feature mostly likely to find its way in Volvo production cars sometime soon. A set of six lights sits inside the the side-view mirror — as a car approaches that side, they flash yellow. If you try to change lanes, they flash red and an alarm sounds. If you slide out of your lane, a similar beeper squawks. And if a driver ahead of you stops abruptly, all hell breaks loose in the driver’s cockpit.

But for all that, the car has five separate computer systems (running Windows 98, by the way), and a trunk so full of electronics you can forget about the golf clubs.

I’m a technology reporter, so perhaps that’s why I’m not keen on being surrounded by bleeps and blurbs and computer chips when I get in a fancy red sports car. Tell you what: give me the wider field of vision and some way to get in the car when I lock my keys inside, dump the trunk full of electronics, knock the prototype price down from $10 million, and we have a deal?