Volvo’s Cars Now Spot Moose and Hit the Brakes for You
ON THE ROADS of northern Sweden, big animals are a big part of life. Moose tower over cars. Antlered reindeer spring out of the woods without warning. Bears abound. Fences lining most major roads can’t keep all the roaming wildlife off the asphalt—as if the winter ice and snow and the extended darkness didn’t make driving dangerous enough.
But Swedish carmaker Volvo has been steadily rolling out new tech that, like studded winter tires and ultra-bright lights have before it, could help save Swedes’ meatballs. The automaker’s new Large Animal Detection system can spot and identify outsized carbon-based hazards and stop the car before colliding with moose in the Arctic Circle, kangaroo Down Under, or deer in Suburbia, USA. The tech, which debuted in the recent S90 sedan and XC90 SUV, will now be deployed in the forthcoming off-road-friendly V90 Cross Country wagon, a car equipped with a slew of other adventure-enabling, anti-death innovations like beefier suspension, bigger wheels, hill descent control and seat belt pre-tensioners that will cinch you to your seat with unholy grip if the car senses a loss of control.
But avoiding big game has always been a uniquely tough proposition for drivers and, now that tech can tackle some of the challenge, car makers. First off, let’s drop the unfortunately persistent myth that when hurtling toward a moose, you should hit the gas in a bid to send it over the roof of the car, instead of through the windshield. “That’s not something I recommend,” says Volvo lead safety engineer Malin Ekholm. “It’s always best to avoid an accident in the first place.” So yeah, Volvo’s system focuses on braking, not accelerating.
That’s the obvious bit. The harder part is knowing when an animal is nearby and poses a real risk to the car. Volvo’s system uses radar to detect the objects around the car, and a camera to identify them. (The feature is sold as part of the automaker’s “city safety” package, which can pick out pedestrians.) Then it slows or stops based on the animal’s size, location, and movement. The idea is to hit the brakes as little as necessary, to minimize risks of being rear ended or losing control, especially if the animal’s about to be out of your path.
To make it work, Volvo’s engineers started by studying animal behavior. “We put a lot of effort in seeing how animals moved and teaching the computer to look for that movement,” Ekholm says. A lot of that work happened on the computer. “You can’t just tell a moose to run across the road, so we created initial captures of real animals and then simulated variations of their movement for the computer.”
The system recognizes animals by matching what the camera sees against a database of masses and shapes. Watching how it moves determines what it’s up to, whether it’s nothing at all, or walking right into the car’s path. The system is programmed based on where the car is sold. In native Sweden, it’s primed to look for moose and elk. In the US, it looks mostly for the deer that cause thousands of crashes every year. It’s not foolproof: Though it can detect animals in the dark if they’re within range of the headlights, it can’t detect partially obscured animals, small animals like dogs and cats, or particularly fast animals. Drivers are still in charge, but this just gives them a boost if they aren’t on top of their animal-spotting game.
Animal detection has been around for a few years, most notably in the infrared-based systems produced by Autoliv (another Swedish company) for BMW, Mercedes, and Audi. But those systems work with night-vision systems and therefore only function when night vision is activated. Volvo’s approach, with radar instead of infrared, can work 24 hours per day.
It’s an expected move, since Volvo is among the 20 automakers that signed a compact last year with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to install collision-avoidance technology in all new cars by 2022. With features like this, safety-minded Volvo has a head start. It also syncs up with the company’s “Vision 2020” plan to eliminate all deaths and serious injuries in its cars by the end of the decade.
OK, but what happens when you collide with a moose, despite all the swanky tech? Volvo’s thought about it. “We have a crash moose in our lab,” Ekholm says. This faux Alces alces, dubbed Mooses, helps Volvo engineers develop structural defenses like using reinforced boron steel in the A-pillars (the windshield frame).
That’s good to know, but better not to know from experience.