Volvo Takes Safety Into the Future

My husband drives a Volvo S40 because it's a safe car. It may not be the fastest or sexiest car on the roads, but I know if he gets in an accident, he will have a better chance of surviving with minimal injuries, simply because he's driving a Volvo.

Safety has been part of Volvo's DNA since the company's inception eighty-five years ago. Founders Assar Gabrielsson and Gustav Larson stated that “Cars are driven by people. Therefore the guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo is- and must remain- safety.”

Since 1970, Volvo's accident research team has investigated every collision in Sweden involving a Volvo: over 36,000 incidents. What the team learned led to the development of many safety technologies we take for granted today: airbags, whiplash protection, and crumple zones among them.

More recently, Volvo engineers have used on-board computers to develop high-tech active safety features that help drivers avoid accidents altogether. The company's mission is that by the year 2020, nobody will be killed or injured in a Volvo.

Case Study

Patrick and Emily Englund were returning home in their Volvo V70 wagon after house hunting on a Sunday afternoon: their infant daughter sleeping in the back. Patrick was behind the wheel, while his wife rode in back with their daughter.

Patrick saw a driver approaching on the wrong side of the two-lane road. In the limited time  before impact, he realized that he couldn’t make an evasive maneuver, so he started to brake heavily. The Volvo safety team estimated that the speed of the frontal impact was about 80 kilometers, or 55 miles per hour.

The good news is that every member of the Englund family survived. The baby was uninjured, but Patrick sustained a shoulder injury from the seatbelt. Emily impacted the center console and broke a ligament in her knee.

The Volvo safety team that investigated the accident faced two challenges: first, to think about how Patrick might have avoided the accident, and second, if the accident was unavoidable, how the car's safety systems might have further minimized injury.

Five-phase Approach

Volvo's safety strategies coincide with five phases of traffic accidents, beginning with 'non-conflict,' and continuing until the 'post-crash scenario.' Non-conflict includes all devices that help drivers to avoid risky driving behavior, while the second phase, conflict, includes scenarios in which accidents are likely.

The Englund's case begins with phase three: avoidance and mitigation. The driver is no longer able to avoid the collision on his own. A new technology called collision warning with autobrake might have helped the Englunds minimize their own injuries, as well as injuries to passengers in the car that hit them.

The system uses a radar sensor and a camera in the windshield to detect objects in front of the vehicle. The radar can detect obstacles up to 150 meters in front of the car; the camera can see objects within 55 meters.

Collision warning is a gradated system that begins with audible and visual warnings and ends, if necessary, with the system automatically applying the car's brakes. I had a chance to experience collision warning at a recent Volvo safety seminar at its Phoenix, Arizona proving grounds.

Crashing the Car Balloon

It's hard to crash into a barrier, even if it is something as innocuous as a balloon painted to look like a car. But that's how engineers at Volvo's desert proving grounds in Phoenix test new accident avoidance technologies.

I sat behind the wheel of a S80 sedan with an engineer riding shotgun. First I was instructed to approach the barrier at a speed of twenty miles-per-hour, and brake when I saw the red warning light displayed in the windshield. That happened within milliseconds of impact.

But because the car had pre-charged the brakes, I was able to stop and avoid hitting the balloon. Normally when a driver brakes, there's a slight delay as the brake pads move against the rotors and create friction. Volvo's autobrake technology positions the pads at the rotors when an accident is imminent, giving the driver the extra time necessary to apply the brakes and avoid hitting the barrier.

But in some cases, pre-charging the brakes isn't enough. A typical scenario is a rear-end collision, when a driver hits the car in front due to inattention.

This time I was instructed to maintain the preset speed, and hit the barrier head on. It took a leap of faith, but just as the bumper clipped the balloon, the car's brakes automatically kicked in, slowing the vehicle down by about fifteen miles per hour.

The reduction in speed gives the car about thirty percent less impact energy: enough to make the difference between serious injury and a minor fender bender. If the car is about to hit a pedestrian, it can make the difference between life and death.

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