1.3 million people die in car accidents each year and, depending on the year, another 20-50 million people are seriously injured while driving. What if we, as a society, could get that number to zero? Volvo is one company that’s trying to make that a reality.

Volvo recently invited TechnoBuffalo to Gothenburg, Sweden for an event titled “Vision 2020 In Sight.” The trip focused on several topics: the all new Volvo XC90 T8 Twin Engine, Volvo’s newest and safest car to date, autonomous driving and, together, how those two make up what Volvo calls “Vision 2020.”

Vision 2020 is a promise Volvo is making to itself, to the auto industry and to consumers, and it’s pretty incredible. The company says that by the year 2020 anyone driving a brand new Volvo will not end up dead or with a serious injury during a car accident. What? That’s only five years and and a few weeks from now. How is that even possible?

That’s exactly what I learned during my trip to Gothenburg in brief meetings with Volvo’s CEO, its head of research and development, in a real live crash test, and during a tour of the AstaZero testing facility.

I’m pretty convinced Vision 2020 is possible. Here’s why.

The XC90 T8 Twin Engine

This spring Volvo will release the XC90 T8 Twin Engine. You’ve probably heard of the XC90, it’s one of the company’s best-selling models, but this version is different for a few reasons. It’s the first version in a while that was created entirely by Volvo and, true to the company’s past, it’s the safest car Volvo has ever created and the only plug-in hybrid in the world that features 7 seats.

The XC90 T8 Twin Engine features three modes: a pure electric mode with a range of up to 40km (24.8 miles), a hybrid mode that takes advantage of the car’s 380hp engine and a secondary 82hp electric motor, combined offering up to 59mpge, and a third power mode that puts priority on performance and response. That mode can get the car up to 60 mph (100 km/h) in 5.9 seconds. The XC90 also features a high voltage 65kw center battery that can be charged with the combustion engine, or frozen in state for an electric drive when needed.

Of course, all of this power means nothing, not to us as consumers or to Volvo, if it’s not a safe car. And Volvo outfitted it with the most advanced autonomous features it has ever used in a vehicle, including day and night avoidance systems for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians, and the world’s first intersection avoidance system that automatically activates the brakes if another car comes out of a blind corner when the vehicle is pulling out into an intersection.

That technology is what’s so important about the XC90, and what makes it a milemarker for Volvo as it works to achieve Vision 2020.

Autonomous Driving

At its simplest, autonomous driving can be defined as a car basically controlling itself. Companies such as Google, Audi, Mercedes and others also offer these features, and some, like Google and Volvo, are working toward a future of self-driving cars.

Of course, that future can’t be achieved without actually building some of that tech into the cars we already drive. Volvo’s goal is to get 100 self-driving cars on the roads of Sweden by 2017, just two years from now, but why not use the features that already work in today’s cars? That’s the point here.

The autonomous systems on the XC90 are always working: cameras and lasers are bouncing light off of objects all around the car and constantly providing it with information on the car’s surroundings, even objects that the driver might not ever see. The car will slam on the brakes at the last moment if it thinks it’s about to run into a cyclist, another car, a pedestrian or an object, perhaps even a moose that has just wandered onto the road. The point, Volvo says, is to create a system whereby the car reacts when the driver wouldn’t even have time to, and it works.

I asked Volvo’s head of autonomous driving whether or not these autonomous safety features might actually encourage drivers to do things like text behind the wheel. He explained that while yes, it’s plausible it could, the auto-brake systems kick in so late that a driver should never get the chance to rely on them – their reflexes will likely make them hit the brakes before an auto brake is necessary. Second, they’re actually already helping to decrease accidents by 20-30 percent.

Autonomous features are just half of the technology that helps keep drivers safe. Volvo also worked on features drivers might never know about: like a metal breakaway system inside of the seats that helps take force off of the driver’s body during an accident, and safe positioning technology that focuses on driver and passenger posture by tightening safety belts and cushioning the impact on the spine during hard landings, which helps prevent serious spine injury during an accident.

Combined, both autonomous driving and these engineering tweaks to the internals of the car play a huge role in preventing serious accidents. Volvo admits that the goal here isn’t to prevent accidents entirely – sometimes they can’t be avoided, but with the right seats, airbags, industrial design, a strong frame and a self-aware car, it can help minimize the risks a driver faces while operating a vehicle.

The Crash

I had a chance to watch a brand new XC90 T8 Twin Engine test crash on Volvo’s campus, during which the car came flying out of a garage and into a ditch at 50mph.

The car was airborne, you’ll see that in the video. Following the incident, I went went over the crash scene with a Volvo engineer who said that yes, while the car was appeared totaled, the occupants likely would have been able to walk away. Those occupants included three test dummies representing two adults and an 18-month old child in a rear-facing car seat.

All of this, however, needs to be tested before Volvo can sell its cars, and make its promises, to the public. That’s where AstaZero, a testing facility TechnoBuffalo visited, comes into play.

AstaZero

AstaZero is a safety test area that just opened this past summer, on Aug. 21 to be exact. The “Asta” part of the name actually stands for “Active Safety Test Area.” That “Active Safety” part is what’s so important: it’s the role the car plays in being actively safe, as opposed to reactively safe – what it does after an accident occurs. Reactive safety is the stuff inside the car, like the fortified frame and ergonomic seats. This is the autonomous smarts of the car that’s important.

Volvo doesn’t own AstaZero. The track is owned by the Technical Institute of Sweden and Chalmers, and is technically an open platform for suppliers, OEMs and others who want to test cars, and Volvo is merely a customer with a 12-year contract to use the course. It is, however, the first full-scale test facility of its size and, compared to other tracks, AztaZero is the only one to offer things such as test dummies, robots to control the cars and more.

Volvo Vision 2020 AstaZero Track-6

More importantly, it also offers several areas where manufacturers can test vehicles, including regions meant to mimic rural roads, high speed multi-lane highways, a city area and a proving ground center, which is a huge open area at the center of the facility. The city area was probably my favorite: it features four buildings covered in massive wallpapers that replicate buildings in Harlem, New York.

The track is 2,000 meters long and 1,000 meters wide – it’s massive, and AstaZero says it should offer any sort of environment an automaker would want to test in. That also includes 10-12 hidden areas where dummy bicyclists, animals, cars and other objects can pop out into the road.

AstaZero has even more unique features, including the ability to block off different parts of the track so that automakers can test in private, secret and separated garages, lane markings for every country in the world (which is important for cars to learn for autonomous driving) and, surprisingly, even secret entrances that can be used with live volunteer drivers who enter the track to test cars, unaware of when they’ve actually entered the testing facility.

This whole area can be thought of as a school for cars. It’s where cars and engineers can work to teach cars to avoid obstacles and how to test them. In one example, I watched a car avoid a rear-end collision with another vehicle. At other spots, I saw where cars might learn to look around blind corners using cameras. I also saw two robot cars driving around, as if performing a synchronized dance.

AstaZero is a next generation track of its kind, and as Volvo and other manufacturers start to promise new active safety measures, the ones that put the smarts inside of the car, this is where the testing will need to be done.

A Government Role

While briefly speaking with Volvo’s head of autonomous driving, I asked him what might happen if, say, a Volvo hit a ditch, totaled itself, and then was hit by an oncoming semi-truck. How can Volvo possibly promise that the occupants would survive that kind of scenario?

The answer, it turns out, is in the infrastructure of our roads. Yes, that semi-truck might have its own autonomous braking system that could help it from hitting a disabled vehicle but, if not, then some of that prevention comes down to the roads we drive on.

It’s up to the governments of the countries we drive in to create safer places to drive. The semi-truck in my scenario might not even have a way to crush the disabled vehicle if a government has proper road barriers in place, for example, whether it’s a guard-rail to prevent collisions from oncoming traffic, a wider median, or any other option.

The executive also said that Volvo can’t promise that someone won’t get injured in its cars if infrastructure isn’t maintained, too. A bridge that’s falling apart and drops a large hunk of concrete on a car, for example, might seriously injure a driver or a passenger. That’s a scenario, while rare, that Volvo can’t prevent unless it works hand-in-hand with governments around the world. Thankfully, it is doing that, but some countries – like Sweden – are better at keeping infrastructure newer than others.

The Future

When the XC90 T8 Twin Engine launches this spring, it will offer some of the most advanced safety features available in any car, and that comes down to every single piece of the car. The autonomous driving is nothing if the driver isn’t safe in his or her seat when an accident does occur. Still, that autonomous driving is also extremely important to helping drivers avoid accidents altogether.

By 2017, Volvo hopes to get its autonomous driving systems to such a level that it can launch 100 cars on the roadways of Sweden that are capable of driving themselves. The XC90 is just one step toward that, and the AstaZero test track will likely also play an important role.

But 2017 and self-driving cars are again, just a mile-markers on Volvo’s bigger Vision 2020 initiative. The company isn’t putting all of its eggs into self-driving cars because, as an executive told me, it knows that people actually like driving in some situations, and it thinks that drivers are always going to want that option. That means that it’s not simply about creating a self-driving car, but instead a regular car that’s also, when asked to, capable of driving itself.

We can’t get to that point in time without automobiles like the XC90, testing facilities like the AstaZero track, or the engineers who put a focus on safety at companies like Volvo. That’s why, while it seems indirect, our vision of the future where there aren’t any accidents, where cars drive themselves in traffic while we sip coffee, and where we can still rip it into high-gear on a country road, steering around each corner by ourselves, isn’t possible without Volvo’s mission of Vision 2020.

Now it’s up to everyone else: us as drivers, other car manufactures, many of which are also working on autonomy and brand new safety options, and as governments, to demand these features in our cars moving forward.