Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Technology of Pedestrian Safety

An interesting statistic recently caught my eye in the El Reg story that Volvo is incorporating airbags to protect pedestrians.

Volvo said three-quarters of all accidents involving pedestrians take place at up to 25mph. In Europe, 14 per cent of car crash fatalities are pedestrians. In the US, with its less densely packed streets, the figure is 12 per cent. In China, it's a staggering 25 per cent.
On further investigation, the CDC has noted this problem going back to 2008.

Are we going to see a disruption in how we view traffic safety? When you pay for the safety of someone else (regardless of fault), what does this say about insurance premiums?

A Short History of External Airbags

One can trace the "airbag as external cushion" meme going back to the Mars Pathfinder and Rover, where they were used to reduce the external shock to the lander. More recently NASA has been experimenting with external airbags to cushion a helicopter crash. So taxpayers can thank NASA for some cool tech that is making its way to consumers.

Bringing the idea of external energy absorption to cars, Jaguar had the right idea back in 2006 to look at pedestrian safety by building a "hood popping" crumple zone. This clearly did not make the feature set as it is nowhere to be found in the official XK description. The Volvo airbag though, is a much more radical and electronically intensive approach to pedestrian safety than anything that has been attempted so far.

Redefining Safety

Anyone who has driven in NYC (or any congested large city, for that matter) knows it is always fraught with peril, but lately I have noticed a lot more pedestrians in their bubbles leaping onto the road like deer, with no inkling of their environment. So my nagging feeling is vindicated by these statistics, and in fact gives me pause to ever drive in the city.

This post is not so much about distracted users, but more about the ability of Volvo to take these nagging feelings, define them and then turn them into a product. Perhaps Apple is not the only one that can intuit a revolutionary product!

It is clear from this video that safety goes to the core of Volvo, and is an excellent example of how brand loyalty is built and reinforced. It goes to the heart of Simon Sinek's argument to address the "why" before anything else.

Not only has Volvo changed the concept of safety (whose safety?) but certainly has given the insurance industry something to ponder over.

The US, Europe or China?

It is curious that Volvo is introducing this feature in Europe first, while the land of litigation is relegated to second place. Perhaps it is the greater population density, or possibly the requirement of some nominal pedestrian safety required by law in Europe that caused this decision. It is also intriguing that in North America safety is defined as that of the passengers only.

Although I have not done an actuarial model of reduced fatalities from said airbags, is seems clear that the saving on litigation alone will be a huge boon to insurance companies. So will any of this pass on to Volvo drivers? One sure hopes so, I am sure Volvo is counting on extra sales because of that!

A final thought: could the high fatality rate in China have driven this decision? One may forget that Volvo Cars is a Chinese company.

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