STOCKHOLM -- Volvo wants to bring to an end the sight of roadkill carcasses on the side of the road, as the safety-focused luxury brand seeks to gain a technological edge over BMW AG.
In development is a system that uses a radar sensor and an infra-red camera to alert the driver to nearby animals and brake if a collision is unavoidable.
That technology is due to be rolled out in a few years in cars such as the XC90 sport-utility vehicle after employees studied the movement of moose and deer in southern Sweden.
Volvo, owned by China's Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., is seeking ways to stand out among competitors as all cars get safer.
BMW, Volkswagen AG's Audi and Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz deliver three times as many cars and are targeting record 2011 sales, while Volvo's deliveries are forecast to trail a 2007 high. The world's top three luxury-car brands are also working on their own active safety features.
The Swedish manufacturer, which became the first carmaker to introduce a system that brakes for pedestrians last year, needs to stay ahead on safety to underpin its claim to premium prices.
We are the leader right now in active safety, and we want to continue to be the leader," Volvo CEO Stefan Jacoby said in an interview. "It's very important" for the company's goals, which include doubling sales to 800,000 vehicles by 2020 and eliminating deadly accidents in its models the same year.
The use of cameras and radar to avoid accidents, so-called active safety, started appearing about a decade ago in premium brands like BMW and Mercedes. The technology has been trickling down to mass-market cars. Ford Motor Co.'s models can assist with braking if an emergency is detected.
The revamped Qashqai crossover from Nissan Motor Co., which hits European showrooms over the next few months, will include a four-camera system providing a 360-degree bird's eye view to the driver.
"There's a democratization of driver assistance systems," putting pressure on upscale brands to stand out, said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.
That means booming business for specialist auto suppliers. The active safety market is growing more than 30 percent annually and is likely to reach $1.5 billion in 2015, while demand for airbags and seatbelts, so-called passive safety products, is growing at a rate of 4 percent to 6 percent a year, said Jan Carlson, CEO of Sweden's Autoliv Inc., the world's biggest maker of seatbelts and airbags.
Still, the weak economy could cause consumers to balk at paying for such hard-to-see extras, said Alexander Edwards, head of the automotive unit for researcher Strategic Vision. "Because of today's economy, the mass market has a very tough time deciding to buy these features," Edwards said.
Island of security
Carmakers' ability to attract buyers based on night vision and collision-alert systems will depend on whether the message gets through that they can simplify people's lives, said Scott Keogh, U.S. marketing chief for Audi.
The world's second-largest maker of luxury cars last month started running television commercials in the U.s. for its $41,700 A6 sedan portraying the car as an island of security. Audi's German rivals are following suit.
Mercedes is equipping the revamped B-class compact with a radar-based collision-prevention system, as it rolls out high-end safety features beyond the S-class flagship.
The third-largest maker of luxury cars is seeking to enhance its accident avoidance systems by using night-vision technology and cameras that generate three-dimensional images to identify potential hazards.
BMW, the luxury-car leader, is also setting its sights on preventing roadkill. It showcased a system this year that shines a spot light on pedestrians or animals near the roadway at night by locating them with a heat-sensitive camera. The carmaker is also working on laser-based headlights and glare-free high beams to make driving safer after dark.
In Sweden, where wandering moose represent a natural obstacle for drivers, Volvo's engineers spend time in the Kolmaerden wildlife park, driving cars among elk and deer and studying their behavior around vehicles to build into the system.