Safety is a science-based religion at Volvo – its founders named “humans” the most important part of a car in the early thirties. Their latest project, Vision 2020, set the goal of eliminating death in all of their new cars in five years time. For most companies that would seem utopian nonsense, but this is the company that invented the seatbelt.
(Full Disclosure: Volvo flew me to Gothenburg, put me up in a very nice glass tower, gave me food five times a day and even offered spa options. I needed that, because it gets dark very early around there.)
The 2015 XC90 is Volvo’s first car to use the company’s brand new SPA scalable platform and the Drive-E hybrid powertrain, both of which were developed in house by the Swedish company’s thousand-strong engineering team.
Everything coming from Volvo in the next decade or so (apart from their compact that’s currently being developed jointly with Chinese-owner Geely) will use the very same technology, and the XC90’s hardware was designed from the start so that it can be upgraded later on with the active safety features Volvo is working on at the moment.
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Volvo’s plan to eliminate all deaths in its cars five years from now is a bold one, yet it doesn’t seem impossible to do from where I’m standing. Their accident records are already better than the competition and, even if they fail, their attempt should create a lot of new technology.
1. Keep Using Strong Steel Instead Of Aluminum
The XC90 already benefits from that work. It uses about 40% ultra high strength steel for the body that makes for thinner parts that are still five times stronger than the regular stuff and allows them to utilize a feature built into the seats to reduce vertical forces on your spine in case you end up in a ditch.
When it comes to the 400 horsepower T8 hybrid, the battery pack is built into the central tunnel of the car, keeping the center of gravity low to minimize the chance of rollovers and to hold those cells as far from any impact as physically possible.
2. Testing On A Tougher Scale
I had an interesting conversation with an engineer about crash tests in general and the small overlap test safety experts are using, because that clearly remains a problem for some companies in 2014.
He told me that car safety performance assessment programs such as the Euro NCAP or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s own could be more up to date, and that the biggest issue is that some automakers design cars making sure only that they’ll score well in tests, not necessarily out there in the wild.
I also learned that since they dissected a bunch of the competition (but mostly BMW X5s), it became clear to Volvo that on the German side, only Mercedes spent the extra cash in recent years to make sure their cars push their wheels outwards and absorb enough energy before the forces reach the passenger cell during a small overlap accident.
Volvo says they have an edge because they’ve been testing their cars on small overlap-style impacts for over 20 years, which shows a long-term strategy at the company: Designing harder tests than anyone requires them to beat. This gives them an advantage when the big testing organizations switch over to new measures (like the roof-crush test) and means they don’t have to design to the test.
A good example can be found in the details on the XC90: The second row comes with adjustable seat belts while the third has a reenforced backside, fixed headrests and automatic belt tensioners, things no current crash test demands from carmakers.
3. Before Selling Anything, Crashing 100 Real Cars And 30,000 Fake Ones
To test the car all around, Volvo has crashed over a hundred XC90s so far, and also done about 30,000 simulations using 3D animation and purpose-built robots to reduce costs, because crashing the real things is a very expensive exercise. But it has to be done, and a crash that looks almost relaxing in an animation becomes rather violent in no time.
The car above was going straight into a ditch at 50 mph.
The car is still mostly intact, although that’s more than we can say for the wheel. The goal here is for the dummies to end up with their belts keeping them in place and the seats taking care of their artificial spines with additional protections from a fleet of airbags.
4. Crashing Into Walls. Big Ones.
This destruction-in-the-name-of-science takes place at Volvo’s test facility at the Gothenburg factory, which has two tunnels rotating on air cushions that can propel cars into the wall at up to 74 mph and trucks at up to 50. It also features a bunch of high-speed cameras and a massive concrete wall in the middle acting as the immoveable object.
Plus some duct tape and a box of Thor, whatever that might do:
5. Making ‘Autonomous’ Driving A Safety Feature, Not A Relaxation Tool
That’s where the robots come in. Volvo might be the last carmaker (now that Saab is gone) who still throws an 1,100-pound rubberized moose at its cars to test the A-pillars (no, I did not see that, but I would love to), but they also say there’s a limit to passive safety and while improving that, they also have to work on the active side with the aim of getting rid of all crashes eventually.
The Swedes claim that the purpose of their autonomous drive functions is not to make it easier for people tweet or read newspapers behind the steering wheel, but to keep occupants safe day and night, and in situations where the human eye’s range is just not good enough.
They say we inevitably drive when we’re too tired, or in fog when we can’t see properly, and there are also cases when drivers would need at least two pairs of eyes to safely judge distances and make a turn at an intersection without the risk of getting crashed into. That’s where “active safety” comes in. It’s the choices your car can make without you intervening.
Currently, Volvo’s robot car prototypes can auto brake even before we take the wrong turn, stay within the lines and follow a route without hitting anything, or at least slow down the cars as much as possible, which is good enough to almost guarantee the occupants’ survival.
Testing in the U.S. also revealed that the radars and cameras are already able to identify a man wearing a beer can costume at Halloween as a humanoid, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to the complete understanding of all intersection situations, getting rid of all T-boning accidents and developing a system that can recognize fast-moving animals even at night.
The next step in autonomous run-off road protection would be when the car can stay on the road without having to rely on any markings, let’s say on dirt roads.
Still, while Volvo is busy developing more and more active safety features, manual overdrive will always be there to keep you in control. Flooring the gas pedal switches off everything and lets you get out of the place immediately, even if that means crashing into something. The choice remains yours.
No pods from Volvo then.
6. Not Playing At The Playground
Speaking of the robot cars that have to avoid balloon cars and dummy deers approaching at up to 43 mph, the AstaZero test facility where they do all this testing is quite something on its own, and it doesn’t even belong to Volvo.
Instead, it was built by the Swedish government and the European Union using data sourced from both GM and Ford, and is owned by SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden and Chalmers University of Technology, with Volvo Cars, Volvo Trucks, Scania, Autoliv and TSS signing a partnership for the next 12 years.
It’s open to other manufacturers as well, providing test locations hidden from prying eyes and an electrified track with the possibility of covering the whole place in artificial fog. They have to be innovative because Daimler is building a similar proving ground in Germany as we speak.
Lying in the woods just outside of Gothenburg, it’s so far the only track designed especially to test active safety, and probably the only proving ground in the world with a dedicated ‘frog spa’ and special barriers built to save the local population. Oh, and they also had to built it around a protected river, which came handy when constructing the frog spa. Only in Sweden!
Acceleration roads, almost half a mile of a four-lane highway, various lane markings and a fake piece of New York helps researchers develop realistic scenarios.
Mind you, it would also make for one hell of a fast racetrack, but they have no such plans at the moment.
7. Getting People To Buy Their Cars
Vision 2020 is a brave move that could push the whole industry towards making significantly safer cars if the XC90 sells well. If Volvo is going to compete it needs to not only be safer, but prove to people that their cars are worth buying and that safety still sells..
Photo credit: Máté Petrány/Jalopnik