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JOURNALIST OF THE YEAR - presented by Jaguar Canada

Entry Number 1: Volvo Centred on Safety

(originally appeared in The Toronto Star Wheels section)

Volvo Safety Centre

by Jim Kenzie

 

GOTHENBURG Sweden - Peter Horbury, chief designer and vice president of Volvo Car Corporation, points out the challenge of communicating Volvo’s primary brand value.

“A BMW owner can fire up the engine, a Mercedes-Benz owner can just close the door, and they can enjoy one of the ‘core values’ of owning those brands.

“But to experience a Volvo’s core value, you have to experience one of the worst things in your life - a big crash - and 99.5 percent of Volvo owners never will.’‘

Not to mention, you’ll probably be too busy to notice.

Stefan Jansson, one of Horbury’s top designers, adds that his job is to allow customers to see this value without necessarily having to experience it.

The SSC - Safety Concept Car - introduced at the 2001 Detroit Auto Show, is an attempt to show that safety can be combined with sportiness and sexiness.

Instead of the big, boxy family car shape that people would expect in a safety car, the SCC is a gorgeous two-door sport wagon, strongly (and deliberately) reminiscent of the P1800ES of the early 1970s.

“We designers have been guilty of creating that stodgy image for safety cars,’‘ says Jansson, who penned the final shape of the SCC.

“This car attempts to reverse that.’‘

Prevention of a crash in the first place is - or should be - the first step to safety. Visibility is really the starting point, since 90 percent of information input to the driver is visual, according to Stefan Nilsson, director of Volvo’s new Safety Centre, located here in Volvo’s corporate home town.

The SCC’s see-through front windshield pillars are a constant reminder of this premise - and they look cool.

Cooler still is the fact that an “eye camera’‘ in the SCC measures where your eyeball is relative to your bum, then automatically adjusts the seat reach, rake and height, the floor height, pedals, shift lever and steering wheel positions to ensure you are perfectly placed to see out of the car.

While some of this technology is a long way off, a Volvo like the SCC is in the cards. And yes, those see-through pillars will be included.

All of which indicates how seriously Volvo takes this safety stuff.

It’s not a new thing for them either. Over 70 years ago, one of the company’s founders, Assar Gabrielsson, stated, “Cars are driven by people. Therefore, the guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo is, and must remain, safety.’‘

Volvo’s current president and CEO, Hans-Olov Olsson, notes that every car on the road today has a bit of Volvo in it - the company introduced the three-point safety belt, surely the most important car safety feature of all time, in 1959.

Christer Gustafsson, senior safety engineer with Volvo, notes that crash tests aren’t the be-all and end-all of safety, but they are crucial to evaluating the crash performance of new models.

The trick is to crash-test cars under as realistic conditions as possible.

One unique aspect of Volvo’s new safety centre, opened a little over a year ago, is the adjustable crash track.

An entire wing of the building, over 100 metres long and weighing over 600 tonnes, is supported by twenty rubber air cushions - think ‘hovercraft’. It can be swung through an arc of 90 degrees, so cars can be hurled at each other from any angle, from head-on, to Tee-bone, to anything in between.

Speeds can reach 100 km/h, so the timing is frighteningly precise.

“If we are off by just one second,’‘ notes Gustafsson, “the cars miss each other by 30 metres. We aim for a tolerance of 2.5 centimetres.’‘

This also makes you realize how terrifyingly random real-world crashes are.

The crashes take place directly over a glass floor under extremely bright light, so the results can be filmed at very high frames-per-second speed, and from all angles.

A car can also be mounted on a dolly and tossed out the open door to simulate a roll-over crash, or even pitched into a ditch.

The engineers can vary the angle in which the car is placed in the dolly, the speed of the dolly, and the stopping distance - the shorter the distance, the  more violent the throwing motion.

Pre-crashed cars are sometimes crashed again, to evaluate what happens in a multi-impact crash - e.g., you bounce off another car, then into a pole. Again, a real-world issue.

With today’s super-computers and ever-more-accurate mathematical modelling, safety engineers usually aren’t too surprised by anything that happens in a crash test. The simulations aren’t yet accepted by governmental authorities as proof of a car’s crashworthiness - a step that Safety Centre director Stefan Nilsson notes is probably decades away.

Differences in standards around the world add further complexity. You’d think that Swedes, Canadians, Americans and Japanese would all die the same way in car crashes, but turf wars, politics and local regulations continue to impede progress.

Our readers can take some comfort in knowing that Canada actually has the toughest regulations in the world - not just the 8 km/h rear bumper test, but various unique seat belt, lighting and other criteria.

“Individual American states even have different regulations about something as mundane as licence plate position,’‘ says Nilsson. “Some of them don’t even explicitly require that the plate be right-side up!’‘

The near-universal adoption of the”ISOFIX’‘ standard for child seat installation does give him some hope.

Asked about the potential problem of ‘designing to the standard’ rather than to what actually happens in the real world, Nilsson noted somewhat cryptically that he “can’t comment on other car companies’‘, but as an example, the Volvo S80, generally regarded even by competitors as one of the safest cars in the industry, had many safety advantages that were not credited by any governmental or third-party testing program anywhere.

He also agrees with me that calling a car “safest in class’‘ because it does well in one particular crash test is a hopeless simplification. “We have to be very careful in communicating this information.’‘

We witnessed a roll-over test of Volvo’s up-coming XC90 SUV. Apparently, the engineers were initially a bit leery about letting journalists see this, because a roll-over is one of the most complex, hence unpredictable, types of crash event, and they weren’t certain of the outcome.

The company’s North American public relations staff encouraged them to have confidence in their product and their work - and so it came to pass.

The car rolled three and a half times, with bits flying off in all directions. The tailgate glass shattered, but the rest of the glass stayed intact.

The car came to rest on its right side. A fork-lift set it back on what was left of its wheels and suspension - and all the doors still opened, although they required quite a tug.

Impressive.

None of this comes about, you should pardon the expression, by accident. Hans Wikman, project leader for the XC90, said, “We have no option but to be the leader in safety in each class.’‘

Applying Volvo’s holistic approach to safety, they knew they couldn’t just throw weight and height at the problem.

They also knew that the only driving advantage of a typical SUV is a higher seating position, which offers better visibility over other traffic. Obviously, if everyone sits up there, as is the case in many American cities, even that advantage goes away.

Thus, predictable, stable handling and roll-over protection were top-of mind for the XC90.

So were compatibility issues - car-to-car and car-to-pedestrian. “We like to think of the XC90 as being the ‘unselfish SUV’,’‘ Wikman smiles, suggesting that he really doesn’t understand the North American SUV market at all...

“A long wheelbase, a wide track and a low centre of gravity all help in stability,’‘ notes Wikman, although many SUVs have none of the above.

The XC90 is based on the same platform as the S80 sedan, so the major masses of the car are lower than most SUVs.

Ground clearance isn’t an issue, since Volvo’s fully-independent suspension creates all they need - the XC90 is, of course, not designed for serious rock-crawling.

The taller body does raise the centre of gravity somewhat, and with up to seven passengers and the ever-present prospect of a loaded roof rack or ski box up there, this risk is magnified.

Volvo counters with something called Roll Stability Control. If sensors in the car determine that a roll-over is an even remote possibility, it automatically cuts power and/or applies one or more wheel brakes to slow the vehicle and reduce the risk.

Sort of like Directional Stability Control, but on a longitudinal axis.

The XC90 is by necessity heavier than other Volvos, which creates additional challenges. “Extra weight may help you survive a crash with another object, but it makes it harder to control a single-car crash, or to avoid a child running into the road,’‘ says Wikman.

“Our reinforced unitized body takes into account the added loads. Special high-boron-content steel - almost impossible to cut or drill - is used for added strength and reduced weight.

“The manufacturing and body repair people hate this stuff,’‘ says Wikman, “but it was necessary to meet our goals.’‘

While adults can fit in the third row of seats for short trips, they are intended for children only. “If we had made enough legroom for adults,’‘ notes Wikman, “it would have eliminated the rear crush zone, or we would have had to make the vehicle too long. While North America is our biggest market, this vehicle will be sold all over the world, and length is a big issue in all those markets.’‘

The seats can be folded, and the middle row adjusted up to 120 mm in reach, but no seats can be removed. “This avoids potential safety issues about proper re-installation,’‘ says Wikman. “Also, removable seats are heavy and awkward to fit - we use robots on our assembly line to install these...’‘ - leaving unsaid the reality that few owners will have a robot in their garage.

The last twenty years have seen the most dramatic advances in car safety in the industry’s history - seat belts, crush zones, air bags, radial tires, disc brakes. The ”low-hanging fruit’‘, as the Brits would say, have been gathered. Where are the next gains to be made?

People are now surviving crashes that used to kill them, so protecting lower extremities - legs and ankles - has become more important. Because these parts of the body are very complex, they are difficult and costly to repair as well.

Whiplash remains a serious problem - the patients may not die, but they are in constant, debilitating pain for years - often for life. Volvo and others have developed anti-whiplash seats that reduce the impact considerably.

Improving the information flow to the driver is also a growth field. Better traffic information, improved satellite navigation systems, warnings of impending danger, whether related to weather, road conditions or even driver alertness, are all on the horizon.

But we also face the real prospect of driver information overload. Every decade has seen a geometrical increase in stuff the driver has to deal with.

A friend of mine - if he reads this, he’ll recognize himself - noted that ten years ago, he was driving to his office in a high-powered sports car. He was listening to his CD player, and dictating a memo into his portable tape recorder. His radar detector suddenly went full-red, he slammed on his brakes, the ABS kicked in - and then his phone rang!

“It got pretty busy in there,’‘ he noted with a grin.

It will get worse before it gets better, says John Oster, manager of “comfort and driver information’‘ for Volvo.

A driver only has so many ‘cognitive resources’, says Oster. Some of these are used up in the driving task, and that varies depending on whether he’s just cruising along a quiet country road or changing lanes on a busy freeway. Other resources must be applied to ancillary stuff like working the radio, answering the phone, etc. When we add Internet access, e-mail, and additional entertainment options like mp3 and DVD, it gets more difficult.

Every car maker is struggling with how to control all these functions. BMW’s controversial menu-and-mouse-driven iDrive system may not be THE answer, but it is an attempt at AN answer.

Automating some of the driving tasks may also help. Automatic cruise control is in production in a couple of cars already. “Lane-keeping’‘ systems which determine if the car is straying from the lane and automatically nudge it back on line are technologically possible.

Improved communication from car to safety authorities in the event of a crash can also save lives, by alerting authorities of a crash automatically, as GM’s OnStar system already does.

Doctors refer to the ”golden hour’‘ - if medical assistance can be delivered within an hour of the injury, survival rates soar.

Simpler approaches may also be useful. The XC90's project leader Hans Wikman somewhat wistfully pointed out the shocking (to me, anyway) statistic that arises from Volvo’s “flying squads’‘, which investigate all serious crashes involving Volvos which take place within about 100 km of Gothenburg - they often arrive before the police do.

“Half of all deaths in Volvos in Sweden,’‘ says Wikman,”occur to non-belted occupants’‘.

Wow.

Sweden has one of the highest belt-wearing rates in the world - in the high-90 percent range. You’d think that anyone buying a Volvo would be into safety, and surely be aware that a safety belt is the first line of defence. Presumably, then, drivers of other makes would show similar numbers.

Obviously, many of these deaths are suicides or murders - we still have no real way of measuring this.

But many people apparently are still unaware of the life-saving potential of belts.

Which is why Volvo also offers the “Safety Showroom’‘ at their head office, which, among other things, shows visitors how much your body actually “weighs’‘ at various road speeds. A 90 kg body (i.e. mine) “weighs’‘ 2250 kg at 25 km/h, 3150 kg at 40 km/h, and 4050 at 55 km/h.

Do you still think you can “brace yourself’‘, even in a low-speed crash? Could you stop a Suburban with your bare hands at city speeds?

Donnez-vous votre head a shake.

Car safety clearly is everybody’s business. It costs us all incalculably if we or our loved ones are involved in a crash.

It costs us all collectively too, in increased medical and hospital costs and lost productivity.

All car makers are doing more than their share.

Are you?

- 30 -

 

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