Volvo plans to install laser sensors on all new cars to increase safety

Volvo Cars intends to install laser-based sensors in all future models in an effort to cut serious accidents involving its vehicles by a fifth, becoming the first carmaker to roll out the technology across its entire fleet.

The upcoming electric version of its flagship XC90 sport utility vehicle, called the EX90, will feature a lidar sensor that allows it to see “a black tyre on a black road at 120m ahead, or a pedestrian at 250m”, said Volvo boss Jim Rowan. 

Using the system will reduce collisions by 9 per cent, and fatal or injury-inducing accidents by a fifth, Rowan added.

He said it is the company’s “intent” to fit similar lidars to all future models, allowing Volvo to further bolster its industry-leading safety credentials.

Rivals including Mercedes-Benz and BMW have announced plans to use lidar sensors in some models, as the industry’s upmarket players try to build additional features into their cars that they believe will help set them apart in the fiercely competitive premium segment.

While lidar systems are common in self-driving vehicles, few carmakers have installed them into regular road cars, in part because of the cost. The use of safety sensors is going to become more common in road cars, particularly with the EU requiring all cars to have emergency breaking capabilities if they detect a stopped object ahead.

Volvo, the first carmaker to install three-point seat belts in the 1950s, has strived to avoid any fatal accidents involving its vehicles.

Its new safety set-up will also monitor drivers inside the vehicle, sensing if they are about to fall asleep, or detecting changes in breathing patterns that might mean the car needs to stop, an advance on a previous eye-tracking system the company demonstrated in 2019.

Rowan said the company had yet to decide whether to license the new technology to other carmakers, a move that would echo its decision to make its seatbelt patents available for free during the last century.

As carmakers install evermore crash avoidance features in their latest models, the industry is debating which kinds of sensors offer greatest perception at a reasonable price.

Tesla boss Elon Musk has been a longstanding advocate of camera-only technology, pointing out that humans drive using their eyes. 

Volvos will feature cameras and radar systems as well, but using lidar allows the car to see beyond darkness, Rowan said. 

“You’ll see maybe 60m with a headlight, our lidar will see 250m with lidar ahead in darkness,” he said. “That becomes really meaningful, that gives an extra at least 3-4 seconds . . . For night-time driving a camera just won’t have that technology.”

He said it also builds a faster picture, because lidar travels at light speed, while radar only travels at the speed of sound.

While it will buy the lidar from Luminar, a company in which Volvo has invested, Volvo has developed the software for processing its images in-house, with a team of “hundreds” of developers, Rowan said.

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