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Old 11-23-2005, 05:38   #1 (permalink)
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US:Imitating the Leader: Other automakers crash Volvo's safety party

Imitating the Leader: Other automakers crash Volvo's safety party

MARK RECHTIN | Automotive News

LOS ANGELES -- Volvo, whose name has become almost synonymous with automotive safety, is finding it harder to keep that halo to itself.

Safety features once found only in premium vehicles have spread throughout the industry. The $31,000 Volvo S60 offers six airbags, ABS and a smart restraint system -- but so does an $11,000 Kia Rio.

And Japanese and German luxury brands have begun offering many high-tech safety advances absent from Volvo vehicles.

Fredrik Arp, CEO of Volvo Car Corp., said the automaker will continue to "defend the position" of making standard the safety features that other automakers list as options.

"We want to combine safety with design," Arp said in an interview at the Tokyo Motor Show in October. "We can sell safety as the backbone of the car, and also that it is a nice car. Everyone else is trying to get to where we are."

But Arp and other Volvo executives say it's getting harder to market safety because newer systems are more likely to be a software program than something visible.

"If the system is not visible in action, and is only indicated by a small lamp on the instrument panel, only the smart buyers will understand how important it is," Arp said.

Crowded battleground

In addition, safety has become a crowded battleground. Volvo's competitors already offer many of the safety items that the company plans to install on future vehicles.

For instance, Volvo's version of adaptive cruise control will not debut until the next-generation S80 flagship in late 2006. But the Lexus IS sedans, Range Rover Sport, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5 Series already have the technology.

Volvo also is considering a system to warn drivers when their car strays from its lane. But that feature has been offered by automakers in Japan for several years.

Night vision is another priority for Volvo, but Cadillac offered it for five years before dropping it because of slow demand.

Not that Volvo is letting its technology slip. The 2006 C70 convertible will have the first side airbag curtain developed for a vehicle with no roof, giving extra protection to the occupant's head. The C70 is scheduled to go on sale in the first half of 2006.

An industry-first blind-spot warning system was an option on Volvo's upper-echelon vehicles for the 2005 model year. And when launched, the XC90 sport wagon had the industry's foremost rollover protection system, from vehicle-dynamics software to the inflatable side curtain for all three rows of seats.

Pushing safety

Volvo still hammers the safety theme in its advertising. The company's latest campaign shows smashed-up Volvos regaining their original shape to show off their design cues. Narratives from the "Volvo Saved My Life Club" fill the automaker's Web site.

Volvo also has introduced a company-wide program called "Mobility 2020" meant to continue the automaker's leadership in safety technology. Its lofty goal is to create "sustainable mobility without accidents" by the year 2020.

But the company is torn by customer research showing that safety is far down the list on most customers' reasons for buying a car. Customers may want a safe car, but safety is relatively low-priority concept compared to performance and styling, said Paul Gustavsson, Volvo Car Corp. director of product planning and product strategy.

"Environmental and safety technologies are seen as a common good, and many consumers are not willing to pay extra for a common good," Gustavsson said. "But if we don't (lead in safety), then all we are doing is just following regulations."

Despite the greater emphasis on safety technology by competitors, executive shoppers still perceive Volvo as the leader in vehicle safety. The 2005 Frost & Sullivan survey of North American CEOs named Volvo the brand with the most useful safety features.

Volvo's integration of safety systems, combined with performance, make Volvo cars a preferred choice among executives, the survey said.

But Volvo's ability to keep its lead could be threatened by competing demands on its engineering resources, some sources say. A recent Ford Motor Co. ad campaign touts its vehicles as benefiting from safety technology developed by its Volvo subsidiary.

That could stretch Volvo's ability to continue developing proprietary technology, some engineers worry.

Jim Hall, analyst with AutoPacific, a consulting firm in Southfield, Mich., believes Volvo can continue to be among the leaders in mechanical safety but will be challenged by software safety advances that increasingly are coming from outside suppliers.

"The next big steps are in active safety," Hall said. "It all comes down to which automaker is going to allow the car to control vehicle dynamics ahead of the driver losing control."
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