A drowsy driver is about to drift off the road when suddenly the seat belt tightens, or extra torque is applied to the steering wheel and the vehicle pulls itself back on track.

Or maybe a driver is turning in front of an unseen oncoming car when on-board radar and a tiny camera prompt the brakes to kick in automatically, avoiding a collision.

As futuristic as such scenarios seem, Swedish auto giant Volvo is turning these possibilities into reality when it reveals its new XC90 luxury SUV next month, complete with two safety features it's touting as "world-firsts": auto braking when turning in front of an oncoming vehicle and run-off-road protection.

Run off road protection

Volvo's new XC90 will have run off road protection, a feature that includes seatbelt tightening if an accidental road departure is detected. (Volvo Cars of Canada)

"It all has to do with our vision," says Volvo Canada CEO Marc Engelen, alluding to the automaker's goal that no one will be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by 2020.

"This is the first step. In every new car which we launch after XC90, you will see some more safety … features, which will go to that vision."

The new features on the XC90, which will be available at Canadian Volvo dealerships next April, are high-tech developments in an automotive safety landscape that has evolved considerably from the 1950s and '60s when vehicles didn't even have seat belts.

But as much as such developments hold the potential for boosting safety, observers caution that they aren't the last word when it comes to reducing serious and fatal collisions.

No help if you're drinking and driving

"We're still not in the world of the autonomous vehicle where all cars are driving themselves," says Kristine D'Arbelles, manager of public affairs for the Canadian Automobile Association. "Drivers still have to be good drivers.

"You can have a tonne of technology on your vehicle that is meant to try to keep you safe, but if you're texting and driving, or if you're drinking and driving, some of those safety features aren't going to help you."

Volvo rest stop guidance

Driver Alert Control, which is standard in the new Volvo XC90, detects and warns tired or inattentive drivers and now has a rest stop guidance feature that directs a tired driver to the nearest rest area. (Volvo Cars of Canada)

In other words, "We're not the Jetsons yet," she says, and the driver remains "the most important safety feature" on any vehicle.

Still, the idea of a car knowing when a drowsy driver is about to hit the soft shoulder, or if a turn can't be made safely, has considerable allure.

"Any sort of advancement in technology that can potentially save a driver in a collision, or reduce collision fatalities or injuries, is obviously a good thing," says D'Arbelles. "We'd never be against something like that."

Engelen has driven in a vehicle equipped with run-off-road protection and says it's "pretty amazing."

"It will detect that actually you are going off the concrete or going off the normal road … and then the car will automatically turn back to the road."

Master in your own car

But the company long known for its focus on safety is not engineering a world where drivers don't exist, even for the autonomous vehicles it is testing in Sweden.

'You are the master in your car.'- Marc Engelen

"That is very important for Volvo," Engelen says.

In the auto-braking feature, for example, if it engages but drivers want to get out of it, they could push the pedal.

"You are the master in your car," Engelen says.

Automotive safety engineering also holds the potential for features that could tell drivers they're not fit to get behind the wheel at that moment.

"Maybe one day in the future there will be a vehicle where you touch the steering wheel and the steering wheel will be able to sense … your heart rate, the temperature of your skin, [and] it'll say: 'Look, maybe you’re not in the best condition to drive right now,' " says William Altenhof, a professor of mechanical, automotive and materials engineering at the University of Windsor.

"I think that will happen one day. I don't know if it will be in my time."

Fewer fatal crashes

Fatal collisions have been on a relatively steady decline in Canada and other developed countries for a few decades. Numbers from Transport Canada show a downward trend in motor vehicle crash fatalities from 3,501 in 1992 to 2,006 in 2011.

There's no one reason behind that decline, says Transport Canada. While improved vehicle safety features are part of it, the department says other contributing factors include:

  • Better road infrastructure, engineering and investment;
  • regulations related to speed, occupant restraints, impaired driving and distracted driving, as well as targeted enforcement of these regulations;
  • improved trauma treatment;
  • changing public attitudes about the importance of road safety.

Societal trends are also important, says Peter Frise, scientific director and CEO of AUTO21, an auto-related research network based out of the University of Windsor.

"The state of the economy affects how many kilometres per year people are driving. The price of fuel is somewhat correlated with how much people are driving" he says.

"If people are driving less, it follows that they'll have fewer road crashes."

Frise thinks Volvo's new features are great, and are "certainly in accord with what's going on throughout the automotive world," where much emphasis is being placed on collision avoidance, in addition to protection of occupants in vehicles.

But none of that matters if drivers ignore features in their cars or trucks.

"You can have the best headlights in the world, but if you're not paying attention out the windshield, then … those headlights don't do anything for you," says Frise.

No instant impact

But even if all drivers were taking advantage of every safety feature offered in their vehicles, and paying close attention to their surroundings, there's still a sense it will be some time before technological advances can make a full impact on road safety.

"It's not enough to say we'll all be safer once Volvo puts this stuff in their cars," says Frise. "We'll all be safer when everybody has it."

Volvo camera and radar

A front-facing camera and radar in Volvo's new XC90 are located in the upper part of the windscreen and integrated behind the rear-view mirror. (Volvo Cars of Canada)

And that could take a while.

"The average age of a car in North America is 11 years, so it's going to take a long time" before some of these aids are everywhere, says Frise.

"Just because one model of one car has got a certain technology, that doesn't mean all the other ones do as well. In fact, they don’t, and some of these new technologies really only function well if everybody's using them at once."

Still, there is no good reason not to try to enhance auto safety, he says.

And from Volvo's perspective, the ultimate goal, beyond 2020, is "no more crashes," says Engelen.

He knows that's a longer-term prospect, and one that combines a host of better driver training and regulation. "We can't do it alone."