First, I hope all of you in the US had a pleasant Thanksgiving holiday; and for those of you not in the US, I hope you had a pleasant last week! Sorry for my absence — let’s attribute it to a bit of holiday overindulgence, shall we?

But now we’re back, and it’s time to step away from the blinding glare of seemingly incessant Tesla and Google news and evaluate Volvo’s bold “Vision 2020” goal that “no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020.”

Given that we’re already at the dawn of 2016, this means this ambitious, admirable goal is just four years away; for many people, that’s just one year more than a standard three-year lease. But impressively, the astoundingly — or, as this is a Volvo, some might say impossibly — gorgeous all-new for 2016 Volvo XC90 is a dramatic, effective step leap in that direction, rivaling both Mercedes’ benchmark S Class and Tesla Model S in everything but price.

Let’s get one thing straight. This is a Volvo, which means safety above all else. And while Tesla is officially the safest vehicle money can buy, and BMWs and Mercedes certainly keep Tesla company at the top of the list, the XC90 takes the automotive industry’s fetish for alphabet soups of safety system acronyms to all new heights with a veritable tome of safety features, some active, some passive, and, with this new XC90, several impressively semi-autonomous ones, too.

Today though, I want to focus on just one. Sort of. Really, it’s a suite of technologies dubbed IntelliSafe in Volvo parlance, each of which merits its own discussion.

Pilot Assist. Arguably the most impressive headline-grabbing tech to launch with the new XC90, Pilot Assist has actually been around since the 2016 XC90 debuted back in May 2015, well before Tesla launched Autopilot for its Model S back in October. Nevertheless, word association due to Tesla’s fanatical popularity means people will instantly try to compare Volvo’s Pilot Assist to Tesla’s Autopilot. And while at first blush it seems a fair comparison, Pilot Assist, while admirable, is overshadowed by Tesla’s far more robust Autopilot.

But that’s not to say Pilot Assist isn’t competent, or even S Class-rivaling for that matter; because it is, and it is. Indeed, apart from Tesla, Volvo’s XC90 with Pilot Assist is the most advanced semi-autonomous system on the road today besides the Mercedes S Class.

For those of you not yet familiar with Tesla’s Autopilot, it is capable of essentially fully-autonomous “follow-type” driving: using stereo cameras and a suite of radars, it can read lane markings and follow cars ahead, even at freeway speeds, and come to a full stop with up to 100 percent braking force as needed, and then accelerate again.

Volvo’s Pilot Assist functions almost exactly like Tesla’s Autopilot except it is limited to about 31 mph (50 km/h).

Both the Volvo and Mercedes’ systems function almost exactly like Tesla’s Autopilot, except they are limited to about 31 and 37 mph respectively (and no, those seemingly random speeds aren’t random at all when converted to everywhere-except-the-US metric: 50 and 60 km/h).

So while you can’t use Pilot Assist to barrel down a highway totally hands-free like in a Tesla, you can certainly reduce some strain and risk from the monotonous — and, statistically more dangerous — burden of stop-and-go traffic.

Beyond 31 mph (50 km/h) Pilot Assist is dialed back to Volvo’s standard and superlative — some might say, industry best — radar-based active cruise control which effortlessly and, most importantly, smoothly manages your speed based on cars in front of you, leaving you to the singular task of managing the tiller. Given that Pilot Assist — like with the S Class and Model S — still requires you to occasionally touch the steering wheel anyway, this isn’t that big of a deal, especially since high speed freeway cruising isn’t the mind numbing frustration of stop-and-go traffic and is generally pleasant to drive anyway.

Accidents do happen, and the guilt of having hit — let alone killed — a pedestrian or cyclist must surely be an unbearable thing to live with.

City Safety technology. Dubbed “City Safety technology,” Volvo seems to have taken the lead in active detection and avoidance of both pedestrians and cyclists and will apply maximum braking force to avoid entirely — or at least mitigate — a catastrophic accident. This is important not just for the hapless pedestrian or cyclist, but arguably the driver as well: accidents do happen, and the guilt of having hit — let alone killed — a pedestrian or cyclist must surely be an unbearable thing to live with.

Intersection braking technology. Volvo claims this is the “world’s first” such technology, and given that Teslas weren’t capable of this until Autopilot rolled out in October, it seems to be a valid boast. Essentially, this “T-bone avoidance” tech does just what it sounds like: if you’re about to turn into oncoming traffic, the car will slam on the brakes to avoid a potentially deadly T-bone, or worse, head-on collision. For a startling look at just how useful such technology is, check out this harrowing video of a Tesla Model S auto-braking to avoid just such an accident.

Beyond these highlight features, IntelliSafe also includes many common functions now available on other vehicles — some admittedly more convenience-oriented than safety — such as bird’s eye (or surround-view) cameras for 360-degree visibility while parking; blind spot warnings; and lane-keeping assist.

With Volvo charging boldly ahead with its Vision 2020 goal; Ford now forging ahead with its autonomous car program too; Switzerland on the verge of launching the world’s first fully driverless public buses; and of course Google and Tesla (not to mention Apple) barreling down the road towards their philosophically divergent approach towards autonomous cars, the future is looking vastly superior to today’s staggering 3,000 vehicular deaths per month.

All we need now is a federally mandated requirement that all future cars include semi-autonomous safety features and all will be well in the automotive world before long. And for those of you like me who love the sport of driving, don’t worry: it’s not like people have stopped horseback riding for sport and leisure.

Follow me on Twitter @MarcHoag
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4 thoughts on “New semi-autonomous 2016 Volvo XC90 targets zero deaths by 2020

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