The Safest Crossovers You Can Buy: Volvo Continues to Stride Toward Real Self-Driving Cars

The new 2018 Volvo XC60

While they’re far from obsolete, sedans are still old news. Today, crossovers are king; after the requisite Ford F-Series, Chevy Silverado, and Ram Pickups, the best-selling vehicle in America is the Nissan Rogue, dusting the Honda Civic by nearly 12,000 units through February 2017.

There are plenty of reasons why Americans have become obsessed with crossovers. Greater ground clearance lets crossover owners feel prepared to tackle the elements, even if their commute is 90% I-95 and 0% Rubicon Trail. Increased cargo space isn’t limited by diminished handling, as crossovers enjoy a car-like ride compared with body-on-frame SUVs. Even the sedan’s fuel-economy advantages are becoming less pronounced, as cheap gas paired with ever-improving fuel economy and hybrid drivetrains (the Rogue Hybrid and Toyota RAV4 Hybrid both launched in the past year) swing popularity toward the crossover. But one detail, perhaps more than any other, leads shoppers to crossovers: safety.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) publish safety ratings each year, and both the NHTSA’s list of 5-star-rated vehicles and the IIHS’s list of Top Safety Pick+ winners are littered with cars of all shapes and sizes. But many crossover shoppers are buying a car to transport their families, and in my experience when speaking with would-be car-buyers, size matters.

A sedan like the Chevy Cruze may be literally filled with airbags and be engineered with antilock brakes, electronic stability control, and the best, most tremendous crumple zones, but when imagining a head-on collision with a Ford Explorer, most drivers would prefer to be in something that can match the other car in size.

Over the course of its history, Volvo has developed a reputation for safety. With the launch of the XC90 in 2015, the Swedish carmaker elevated its distinction even higher, delivering advanced safety features like collision avoidance, lane-departure warning, and road-sign information as a part of its ground-breaking City Safety package.

At the 2018 XC60’s launch in Geneva last week, Volvo tacked on yet another feature to City Safety: Steer Assist.

Paired with Volvo’s Oncoming Lane Mitigation technology, Steer Assist is designed to recognize traffic situations that would normally require the driver to move the steering wheel to avoid a crash (rather than simply hitting the brakes). Instead of putting the onus of staying alive on the driver, new Volvos equipped with City Safety with Steer Assist will take the necessary actions autonomously.

In addition to Steer Assist, the new XC60 will include Volvo’s optional Pilot Assist features, currently available on the XC90, S90, and V90. Pilot Assist takes the self-driving tech a step further, allowing the car to manage speed and steering at up to 80 miles per hour.

If this sounds a bit like Tesla’s controversial Autopilot feature, you’re not alone. Volvo engineers have been critical of the California start-up’s Beta-test safety system, declaring it a dangerous, half-baked solution. Tesla advertises Autopilot as a Level 2 autonomous system, meaning the driver needs to be paying attention at all times. In an interview with The Verge last year, Volvo’s senior technical leader of crash avoidance, Trent Victor, explained that Level 2—and even Level 3—autonomous systems simply don’t cut the mustard for the Swedes.

As Victor explains it, “In our concept, if you don’t take over, if you have fallen asleep or are watching a film, then we will take responsibility still… We won’t just turn [autonomous mode] off. We take responsibility, and we’ll be stopping the vehicle if you don’t take over.”

A truly safe autonomous driving system needs to be able to handle traffic even if the driver is completely oblivious to the world around him or her (say, if he or she has fallen asleep at the wheel or is texting Mom while driving through Boston’s North End). Volvo won’t release a fully featured autonomous driving system until it can assure this ability, but it sure looks like it’s using City Safety to release the necessary components as they come online.

Do you want your next crossover to be able to drive itself?

-Matt Smith

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