Thomas Broberg’s Vision for Volvo’s Crash-Free Future

Thomas Broberg
Senior safety adviser, Volvo
Göteborg, Sweden

Broberg, 42, studies the driving habits of the aging to develop cars that will keep them — and other drivers — safe.

"Baby boomers are going to live longer, and healthier, than any generation before, which means there will be a higher percentage of older drivers on the road. There's a misconception that they're involved in more accidents than younger drivers, but they're not. They just have different reactions. We recently tracked senior drivers' eye movements in intersections and learned that they focus on line markings and road signs, while younger drivers focus on moving objects like other cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. We have to consider this significant behavioral difference as we design safety technologies. The solution is to build cars with senses. We have cars today that can recognize a potential collision, feel if the driver is responding or not, and automatically apply the brakes if necessary. The next big step toward a crash-free future will be designing cars that can communicate with one another and everything that is around them."

-Online Extended Q&A-

Fast Company: Improving road safety seems like quite the challenge to take on.

TB: Road safety is not just a problem—it’s an epidemic. If you look at the US alone, 37,000 Americans lost their lives in traffic accidents last year, and more than a million were injured. The UN estimates that 1.2 billion people are killed globally each year. We have to have knowledge about the drive from two different aspects, both how our bodies can avoid forces when in a collision and how drivers behave. It’s more about psychology and cognitive science.

FC: What are some of those behavioral differences?

TB: It’s about taking risks and understanding the consequences of those risks. We’re just publishing a study where we have senior drivers, who are healthy, compared to drivers ages 35-45. We checked their neck flexibility; we tracked their eye movements in intersections. What we thought we would find was, based on the circumstances, you take less risks if you have more experience. We actually found that there’s just a strong difference in what drivers look at: senior drivers focus on line markings and road signs, while younger drivers focus on moving objects. That’s a significant difference.

FC: How can Volvo go about reducing collisions, if it comes down to different habits of these groups?

TB: We have technologies today that can detect if a driver is about to fall asleep. We have technologies that address distractedness—if you’re about to collide, it can warn you. These design factors help all drivers, especially seniors. This group is growing, and mobility is important to them. They’re not willing to give that up. Cars like the S60 or XC60, we’ve pretty much built them with these senses.

FC: What are the next steps, moving beyond collision warnings?

TB: We have an ambitious goal set at Volvo, and that is by 2020, no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo, and these features are the humble first steps toward that crash-free future. Next we need cars to communicate with one another, to not just warn the driver but to take action in order to avoid a collision. Cars shouldn’t crash.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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