Ask yourself this question – if you had to crash in any car, which car would you rather be in? If you’re a European buyer, your answer would probably be any car with a Euro NCAP rating of 5, or for our friends across the pond; a NHTSA 5-star safety rating.
But are all 5-star rating cars the same, or can we make an even more informed choice?
That’s the question we debated with Volvo’s safety-meister Thomas Broberg after the company flew us out to their Gothenberg HQ to experience a live crash test.
Before experiencing our first non-accidental crash, Thomas took us through the company’s safety strategy, which as boring as that might sound was actually quite enlightening.
Firstly, Volvo’s goal exceeds the question we asked at the beginning of this article – according to Broberg, “by 2020 nobody should be killed or injured in a new Volvo car”, in fact they are working towards the target of avoiding crashes altogether whilst ensuring that every unavoidable crash should be survivable (provided you’re sitting in the latest model Volvo).
Now of course these are targets; there’s nothing Volvo can do about truly stupid or deliberate collisions, but it marks the company out amongst other car makers, who might otherwise record a similar 5-star safety performance.
No doubt you’ve already heard about Volvo’s Autonomous Driving programme, the first of these features will be introduced at the end of 2014 in the all-new XC90, which Volvo say will fundamentally alter the way we look at driving in the future – Steer Assist automatically follows the vehicle ahead in queues which together with Adaptive Cruise Control can cut fatigue and fuel emissions significantly.
Volvo’s Crash Lab
+ Built in 2000 and nominated as a ‘Centre of Excellence’ for safety within (then) parent company Ford.
+ The laboratory is also used by Volvo Trucks.
+ Digital high-speed cameras installed in 2008 can record at 200,000 frames a second and are situated above, below and around collision points.
+ The crash centre employs more than 1,000 staff and tests up to 400 cars per year. Each test takes up to 1 week to set up.
+ Over 3,000 crash tests have been carried out since the centre was opened.
The weak link in road safety is of course the driver, but Broberg says this will never result in self-driving cars where the driver becomes relegated to the passenger seat – their focus is instead on assisting the driver through technology such as Intersection Support, where the car automatically brakes for crossing traffic when necessary and Animal Detection, where the car detects and brakes for larger animals such as Elks and Stags (not something we have to worry too much about around the M25).
While Volvo’s strategy is that of enhancing the driving experience it feels a responsibility to improve the safety of its customers and other road users, helping avoid collisions and ensure the minimum personal damage when they occur.
To this end they’ve deployed four decades of data from the field, thanks to their Traffic Accident Research Team, who travel around Sweden visiting real accidents where Volvo cars were involved – they try to understand how and why accidents and injuries occur and even recreate crashes to simulate alternate outcomes.
But how safe are Volvos? And does their pursuit of safety stand out amongst other premium car makers?
From Volvo’s own research one of its closest competitors seems to be Mercedes-Benz, but even one of Germany’s finest cannot claim the same accolades; the risk of being injured in Volvo’s latest models has reduced by around 50 percent since the year 2000, no less than five Volvo models – the C30, S60, S80, XC60 and XC90 – earned a IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) top safety pick, while Swedish insurance company Folksam chose four Volvo models – the S60, V60, V70 and S80 – as top of their ranking class with a 12 per cent margin to the next car on the list.
On average, Volvo’s top four models are almost 60 per cent safer than the average car on the Folksam 2013 report, which was compiled before the V40 became the safest car ever tested by Euro NCAP.
Zero crash philosophy
Volvo has long been a world leader in the field of active safety; preventing injury to passengers through the use of safety belts, pre-tensioners, whiplash protection, airbags and inflatable curtains, but the biggest gains in the future will come from accident prevention, combining the strengths of active and passive safety systems to deliver the best outcome.
The new XC90’s Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) will offer even greater protection in worst-case scenarios by the use of hot-formed boron steel – the original XC90 featured 7 per cent of this in its architecture while the new model uses over 40 per cent – the goal is to absorb the impact of a crash without passing the forces onto the driver or passengers.
The ultimate according to Broberg will be when cars (and street furniture) talk to each other, working together to avoid collisions either due to driver or machine error. Sound unlikely? Well it’s already happening; camera, radar and sensor technologies are being implemented into cars which will steadily be connected to each other through Wi-Fi and the internet. This Car2Car and Car2Infrastructure technology will allow cars to literally see around corners and spot hazards and queues before they happen.
According to Jan Ivarsson, Senior Manager of Safety Strategy and Requirements at Volvo Cars, “unintentional road departure is the collision type that results in most deaths and serious injuries in modern traffic”, so Volvo are building detection and auto-brake systems into all their cars to prevent this.
It’s this obsessiveness to safety which makes Volvo’s capabilities the envy of the car industry, so much so that several other car maker use Volvo’s crash lab to develop their own cars.
Neither Broberg or his boss Magnus Olsson would tell us who else uses their lab but they did explain that it’s all part of their brand philosophy to reinforce Volvo’s leadership in road safety.
So who would you trust with your loved ones, those who lead or those who follow?
Volvo’s crash test provides a sobering demonstration of the risk many of us subject ourselves to every day on the roads, but it’s good to know there’s a group of passionate engineers looking to eliminate the dangers of simply travelling from A to B.
Safety know-how for (crash test) dummies..
The Volvo V40 is the safest car ever tested by Euro NCAP, scoring an all-time high of 88% in the pedestrian evaluation test.
Volvo choose not to build a car smaller than their C-segment V40 – they measure safety by both front and rear-impact performance and build the same crash structure into the V40 as they do in their larger cars.
50% of fatalities occur in road departure accidents (exiting junctions), the all-new XC90 is the first Volvo designed to eliminate such a crash.