Automated braking demonstration goes wrong for Volvo dealer

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If there’s one thing that should be made clear about automated safety technology in vehicles, it’s that they work in specific conditions and if you don’t know what those are, you probably shouldn’t be demoing them to people. That’s some advice that one Volvo dealership didn’t take to heart however, when it tried to show off the car’s automated braking system by driving towards a group of onlookers, who were unfortunately hit by the vehicle as the system did not engage when the salesman expected.

Fortunately no one was hurt badly by the incident, but it hightlights how people need to be educated about safety systems, as they are not designed to take over from common sense. With that in mind, a Volvo spokesperson commented on the event, pointing out that there are several aspects of it that should have been considered. For starters, the car itself is not fitted with a pedestrian collision system, which is a $3,000 extra for that particular vehicle. Instead, it is fitted with the XC60’s City Safety system, which stops the car bumping into other vehicles at low speeds.

Note, cars are much larger than people and the vehicle’s detection system was not equipped to pick up the individuals stood in front of it.

On top of that though, safety systems of these sort only have a secondary priority compared to driver input. This is to prevent safety systems causing accidents by engaging when they shouldn’t, or preventing actions that a human deems safe. With that in mind, accelerating towards a group of people would override any automated braking as the vehicle would assume that the driver knows best.

Unfortunately, so did the potential buyers who have no doubt been rather put off by the dangerous demonstration.

However this also highlights a major point that must be considered as more automated features are added to vehicles. While there are safety improvements that can come from handing over control of the vehicle to the onboard AI, human intuition is still going to top it for some time and being aware of the parameters with which the safety technology works is incredibly important.

It’s for that very reason that a lot of governments and industry analysts want the first wave of driverless cars to legally require someone to be alert behind the wheel. As much as that may make the technology redundant, until it’s proved worthy of being ignored, it needs to be watched very closely.

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.