Spending the day at Ford's Product Development Center learning about the latest efforts in safety sounds boring, right? Normally, yes, but it's amazing how strapping yourself into a 50MPH water cannon-powered Volvo makes anything entertaining.

The massive water cannon is the work of Ford's Active Safety Research and Advanced Engineering group, and it's designed to simulate the impact of another vehicle slamming into the side of a Volvo — without actually crashing another vehicle into it. The device analyzes how a moving vehicle reacts to being struck from the side, without putting test vehicles and drivers at risk of damage or injury. Researchers say the new test could prove useful in the development of next-generation stability control technology.

We got the chance to take a ride in the passenger seat with the systems mastermind, group manager Jeffery Rupp, who gave us the skinny on what makes it tick.

The system is built around a Martin Engineering Hurricane Cannon, a high pressure water cannon normally used in mining operations or for folks into pumpkin chuckin'. In this application it's been modified and mounted to a static frame which is attached to the cargo bay of a chopped up Volvo V70R. The big orange tank is pumped up with 135 PSI of shop air, the end of the silver tube is sealed up with a sheet of plastic and the safety gate is closed. In operation that gate is opened up and the plastic holds back the water, the gate is there to prevent anyone from being injured should the thing accidentally go off. That pipe is filled with ten gallons of water and everything is ready to go.

Out on the test area, Rupp opens up the safety gate the game is on. Once he gets clearance from the test track tower, it's on the Volvo's gas and we're quickly up to the 50 MPH test speed. Rupp hits the two thumb buttons on the steering wheel and a servo lets the blast of compressed air loose. With an effective explosive strike of 2 Gs it actually sounds and feels like we've just been hit from behind. Very cool.


Rupp tells us this system is their first run at this kind of testing. It doesn't fit very easily in a vehicle, it doesn't transport between cars very well, it throws off the center of gravity and it changes the inertial characteristics, but with a mad scientists glint in his eye he tells us they're already planning something smaller, portable and even more powerful. Its the kind of thing that'll be used in the future to make stability control in the event of a crash that much better. Plus it's just damn cool.