Mother Nature inspires Volvo’s future safety solutions


Since the first single cell organism emerged from primordial soup, nature has been testing, selecting and perfecting how best to help life survive. Along with the dead ends came plenty of successes, and lessons learned from nature have helped scientists to improve our lives.

Technology ideas that were developed long after Mother Nature invented them include Velcro© (inspired by burrs on seed pods), self-cleaning coatings for ship hulls (from shark skin structures), and neuromorphic computer chips that will one day be able to process information the way our brain does, just to mention a few.

According to Jonas Ekmark, Preventive Safety leader at Volvo Car Corp, Dr. Claire Rind at Newcastle University in the UK conducted studies into the migratory locust, the African Locust, and their ability to avoid bumping into each other during flights.

During the study, Dr. Rind learned that visual input is instantly transmitted to the insect's wing nerve cells, seemingly bypassing the brain. Dr. Rind calls this the Locust Principle.

"Locusts are quick reacting and have reliable circuits; they do their computations against lots of background chatter, much like driving around town," comments Dr. Rind.

Volvo wanted to learn if locust sensory-input routing methodologies could be built into a vehicle pedestrian safety system, with the aim of producing Volvo cars that would avoid hitting pedestrians.

Primary to this research was to synthesize a locust algorithm that could be applied to a car. "As it turns out, the locust processing system is much more sophisticated than the hardware/software currently available," says Ekmark. "In the end, technology was no match for nature."

However, what Volvo learned was very encouraging. Rather than wait for technology to catch up to Dr. Rind's Locust Principle, Volvo created a pedestrian alert feature that will be introduced in the near future.

"When we started in late 2002, sensing and computational systems were rather weak," says Ekmark. But technology is catching up, and Volvo City Safety has been launched as standard in the new Volvo XC60. At low speeds, City Safety is smart enough to bring the XC60 to a complete stop should the vehicle in front suddenly stop.

"Beyond City Safety, our next step will be our first pedestrian avoidance feature," says Ekmark. "Although City Safety is not related to our locust research, we are confident that our first pedestrian auto brake feature will be very good at taking actions to help avoid hitting pedestrians."

He added that while some interesting ideas came from the locust study, there are still many more years of research ahead to bring that small locust brain into Volvo's cars.

"We have found a lowly locust has man beat, at least for now. Still, the big question remains: How do groups of locusts keep from bumping into each other? Maybe there's more to be learned. We will continue to follow interesting paths in our efforts to reach our safety vision – to design cars that do not crash," concludes Ekmark.

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